Wednesday, July 01, 2009


For a reason that is not entirely clear to me, the Latvians celebrate midsummer on the night of the 23rd, rather than the 21st, which is actually the longest day/shortest night of the year.

Name days are a big deal here. That is, each traditional Latvian first name is assigned to one day of the year, and one celebrates his or her name day in a manner not unlike a birthday. The 23rd is the name day for "Liga," one of the most popular female names. The 24th is the name day for "Janis" (Latvian for "John"), by far the most popular male name. So the midsummer celebration is generally called "Jani" in connection to the associated name days. And "ligot" is a verb meaning roughly "to celebrate midsummer."

How does one "ligot"?

* Go to the countryside. A real Latvian is a little reluctant to spend and weekend in the city. To spend Jani in the city would be a sign of insanity.

* Drink beer and eat cheese. The traditional Jani foods are a special cheese made with caraway seeds and beer that is not special in any way other than that beer is always special.

* Barbecue shashlik. Shashlik basically means what we might call "shish kebabs" and does not date back to ancient pagan rituals like most Jani traditions do. But it is tasty.

* Build a bonfire. Then jump over it for good luck. We did.

* Sing. A lot. There are approximately one million songs that one sings around a bonfire on Jani, and radio stations play them back to back to back for 24 hours -- sort of like Christmas carols. Have we mentioned that the Latvians love to sing? They sang a bunch. Many of the songs have a chorus that goes something like "Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo," but many have a bit more to them. Then they asked us few Americans to sing for them a traditional American song that we all knew the words to - and we couldn't come up with one. We could maybe do some Beatles songs, or the Star Spangled Banner, but those weren't quite right. We just flat-out don't sing like the Latvians do. It's part of who they are, and it isn't part of who we are.

* Stay up all night. It's not that hard since it gets light so early. Except don't forget the cases of beer you've been working on for about 12 hours by now. So, there's a degree of difficulty, which some truly traditional die-hards enhance by getting falling-down drunk for Jani. We didn't feel the need to go that far, since we were beginners, but we did try just about everything else.

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