Along with Christmas, Jaaniõhtu (Midsummer Eve – 23 June) and Jaanipäev (Midsummer Day, St John’s Day – 24 June) are the most important holidays in the Estonian calendar – people around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate with singing, dancing and lighting the bonfires, as Estonians have done for centuries.
The short summers with brief nights hold special significance for Estonians. Jaaniõhtu and Jaanipäev follow the longest day – 20-21 June – of the year, or the summer solstice, when night seems to be non-existent.
Following pagan rituals
Jaanipäev was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end the pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday.
In 1578, Balthasar Rüssow, one of the most important Estonian chroniclers, wrote in his Livonian Chronicle with some disgust about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals.
The Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of Võidupüha (Victory Day) after the War of Independence, when the Estonian forces defeated the German troops on 23 June 1919. After this battle against Estonia’s traditional oppressors, Jaaniõhtu and the traditional lighting of bonfires became linked with the ideals of independence and freedom.
Traditionally, Jaanipäev marked a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making. Hence, some of the rituals associated with Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day have very deep folkloric roots.
The best-known ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Midsummer’s Eve is also associated with romance. In Estonian fairy tales and literature, there is a tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). According to the tale, these two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year.
Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the fern flower which is said to bloom only on that night. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions to see whom they are going to marry.
Jaaniõhtu and Jaanipäev were so dear to Estonians that even during the occupation, the Soviet Union made no attempt to stop the celebrations, even though it represented the nation’s free spirit. Jaanipäev, therefore, always reminded Estonians of their independence in the past, despite the Soviet attempts to eliminate such ideas.
The tradition before the Soviet occupation, which has now been restored, was for a fire to be lit by the Estonian president on the morning of Victory Day. From this fire, the flame of independence was carried across the country to light the many bonfires. In 1992, following the restoration of independence of Estonia, Jaanipäev became an official national holiday.
On these days, people all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing, dancing, drinking, eating and lighting the bonfires as Estonians have done for centuries. Thousands of Estonian expats, meanwhile, usually celebrate it a week or two in advance – and those who can, travel to Estonia for the proper one.
Lennart Meri, a legendary writer and film director, and the Estonian president from 1992-2001, provided another perspective on Jaanipäev in his book Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976). Meri suggests the Jaanipäev traditions re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa. The meteorite’s fall is also said to be the inspiration for Nordic and Baltic mythological stories about the sun falling onto the earth. This idea suggests that the present day bonfires and celebrations actually symbolise Estonia’s connection with its ancient past.
* Originally published on 23 June 2013, considerably amended and lightly edited on 22 June 2017. Sources: Estonia.eu and Estonian World. Cover: Bonfire in Kuressaare (Andrus Unger/VisitEstonia.)