Jāņi is a Latvian festival held in the night from 23 June to 24 June to celebrate the summer solstice (Midsummer), the shortest night and longest day of the year. The day of Līgo ([liːɡu͡o]) (23 June) and the day of Jāņi (pronounced [jaːɲi]) (24 June) are public holidays, and people usually spend them in the countryside. The festival’s eve Jāņu vakars ([jaːɲu vakars]) is held in the evening of 23 June and goes on all through the night Jāņu nakts ([jaːɲu nakts]) , where people Līgo (sway) into the following day.
Jāņi is an ancient festival originally celebrated in honour a Latvian pagan deity Jānis, referred to as a “Son of God” in some ancient Latvian folksongs. Jānis is also traditionally the most common of Latvian male given names, corresponding to English name John, and everybody of the name Jānis holds a special honor on this day (Jāņi is a plural form of Jānis) and wears an oak wreath. Besides John, the name of Jānis is also etymologically linked with other names of various nations, such as Aeneas, Dionysus, Jonash, Jan, Jean, Johan, João, Ian, Ivan, Huan, and Han.
The festival’s current date has shifted a few days from 21 June/22 June when the summer solstice actually takes place due to its somewhat incongruous association with Saint John the Baptist’s feast day, which falls on 24 June. Still, traditions of Jāņi contain no reference to Christianity or any Christian symbolism.
Jāņi is thought to be the time when the forces of nature are at their most powerful, and the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds are thinnest. In the past, evil witches were believed to be riding around, so people decorated their houses and lands with rowan branches and thorns in order to protect themselves from evil. In modern days other traditional decorations are more popular, including birch or sometimes oak branches and flowers as well as leaves, especially ferns. Women wear wreaths made from flowers; in rural areas livestock is also decorated.
Jāņi also is thought to be the perfect time to gather herbs, because it is believed that they then have magical powers. Other practices of magic in Jāņi vary from fortune-telling to ensuring productivity of crops, as well as livestock fertility. A well-known part of this celebration is searching for the mythical fern flower, though some suggest that the fern flower is a symbol of secret knowledge; today it is almost always synonymous with having sexual relationships. Young couples traditionally search for the flower and many believe there is an increase in births nine months later. (In the past, this timing was ideal for farmers.)
Another important detail is fire: A festival fire must be kept from sunset till sunrise, and various kinds of flaming light sources are used; usually these are bonfires, which traditionally people jump over to ensure prosperity and fertility. Traditional food during Jāņi is a special type of cheese with caraway seeds, made out of curd, and the traditional drink is beer. Many people make the cheese of Jāņi themselves; a few also make their own beer.
Representatives of Latvian Emergency services often warn that Jāņi can be harmful to health because of the amounts of food and alcoholic beverages consumed, as well as maltreated fires.