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Summer solstice: no one does it better than the Estonians

In Estonia, summer solstice has been celebrated for more than 1,000 years and is the second most important holiday after Christmas. Everyone takes part in the festivities. And Estonians celebrate both the eve of summer solstice (Jaanilaupäev) and solstice (Jaanipäev). Sunrise is at 4:03am and sunset is at 10:43pm on June 21 in Estonia. That’s 18 hours and 39 minutes of daylight! In 2016, Estonians will celebrate the solstice on June 23 and 24.

Solstice celebrations pre-date the arrival of Christianity in Estonia. Pagan celebrations had very strong roots in Estonia and were incorporated into Christianity, rather than wiped from the pagan calendar. The name of Jaanipäev, or St. John’s Day, is thought to have been given by the Baltic Crusades undertaken by the Christian kings of Denmark, Poland, and Sweden between 1208 and 1224. The Christian Church designated that St. John the Baptist’s birthday would be celebrated on June 24, so the pagan and Christian holidays were merged.

Eight hundred years later, Jaanipäev was merged yet again with Victory Day celebrations (Võidupüha), when Estonian forces defeated German troops in Latvia on June 23, 1919. Victory Day, June 23 became an official holiday in 1934.

The thing that makes Jaanipäev special is the ritual lighting of bonfires to scare away evil spirits, based on pagan beliefs of the eternal struggle of light and dark, good and evil, ghosts, goblins and witches. More than a thousand years ago, pagans noticed that after June 21, the days were getting shorter and the sun appeared to be weakening. They lit fires so the sun would regain its strength.

And here’s the fun bit: Estonians jump over the bonfire leaving the past behind, avoiding bad luck, and guaranteeing prosperity and a good harvest. So, everyone must jump over the fire. The bigger the fire, the more evil spirits were frightened of it and so stayed away. Jumping high would dictate how tall and robust crops would grow in the fields.

Beware: To not light a fire on Jaanipäev at all meant that you were inviting the destruction of your house by an all-consuming fire!

As with most holidays the world over, Estonians gather with family and friends and an endless parade of food, especially sausages, Estonian sauerkraut, and pastries featuring cottage cheese (cheese Danish). And it’s all washed down with gallons of beer. And there’s singing and dancing, both social and folk dancing. Many Estonians start the evening with a sauna. There is also a tradition of vising ancestors’ graves.

The eve of summer solstice is important for lovers, as well. In Estonian folk tales and literature, there is the story of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year—summer solstice.

On the eve of summer solstice, Estonian lovers go into the forest looking for mythical flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night. And so, young lovers are sent into the forest, two by two, to look for the fern flower. In fact, every good Pagan knows that ferns don't flower.... But certain fern cultivars have “fertile fronds” which contain fern spores on the underside of the leaf.

A so-called fertile frond showing spores on the fern frond underside

The fern flower is said to bring fortune to the person who finds it. In various versions of the folk tale, the fern flower brings luck, wealth, or the ability to understand animal speech. However, the flower is closely guarded by evil spirits and anyone who finds the flower will have great happiness and wealth, which have never benefited anyone, so the decision to pick the flower or leave it alone is left up to the individual.

Also on this night, Estonian singles hoping to marry in the coming year can follow a detailed set of instructions involving different flowers that predict whom they are going to marry.

With all these activities planned yearly to celebrate Jaanipäev, Estonians are awake the whole night. It’s a good thing that summer solstice has been an official national holiday in Estonia since 1992.

Of course, after Jaanipäev, it’s all downhill again as the days begin to get shorter until December 21, the shortest day of the year.

Happy Jaanipäev, start your own traditions, and go enjoy your garden on the longest day of the year.

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