It feels like I’ve barely bid farewell to last winter and here we are, mid-way through the summer already! Yes, believe it or not, June 21st will be the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year, and it’s all downhill from there.
Now the good news: there’s one big, last positive. For millennia, people have thought this was a great excuse to stay up all night, drink beer around a bonfire, and chase maidens through forests. Despite the passing of several thousand years, it seems not much has changed and you’ll find people all over Europe – including Poland – still doing just this on the night.
The midsummer tradition is steeped in millennia old symbolism. It’s a magical night, where the elements of fire and water, the sun and the moon, men and women are said to come together in a celebration of love and fertility, birth and rebirth.
Many of the night’s traditions stem from these elements. Young men built bonfires, and jumped over them for luck in the coming year. Unmarried girls plaited flower garlands and floated them down rivers and other waterways, wishing for love. To speed things up a bit, single men would wait downstream, as they had the chance to court any girl whose garland they found. If the affections were reciprocated, the new couple would hold hands and jump over a bonfire to promote fertility.
Midsummer is still a major celebration in these parts. It’s now also known as Świętojańska, or St John’s night, due to the efforts of the early Christians to assimilate pre-existing traditions into the Christian calendar. But the traditions persisted throughout the continent virtually unchanged, particularly the Baltic countries where it’s a national holiday. So I decided last year – my first mid-summer in Europe – to head with a friend to a place called Kernave in Lithuania, where I’d heard there was some kind of midsummer event.
When we arrived Kernave seemed to be a fairly sleepy little place and there didn’t seem to be much of anything going on. I was a bit worried I might have dragged us all this way – including on an overnight bus – for nothing. Still, we went to check out the town’s major attraction, some pagan hill forts dating from around 10,000 years ago that overlook the heart-breakingly picturesque Niva river valley. Those pagans weren’t big on large, lasting constructions, so a little imagination goes a long way. But the view from the top was breathtaking, and the valley has a very special feel to it. It is just the sort of place you can imagine tribes wandering into 10,000 years ago and deciding to stay.
There’s just one hotel in town – the Kernaves Bajoryne (kernavesbajoryne.lt), which is about two kilometres from the forts. So we headed there, checked in, and spent the afternoon reading, sunning ourselves by the gorgeous mountain lake next to the hotel, and thinking that, even if nothing much else happened, it had still been a nice trip.
As it turned out over the course of the next day – the longest day of the year – people poured into town from everywhere. Food and drink stalls sprang up, girls wearing flower garlands and traditional costumes appeared, and by the evening the hill forts were teeming with thousands of people, all gathered to bid farewell to the sun on the shortest night of the year. As the sun set, unmarried girls set candles and flowers on their journey down the river, as a choir sang farewell to the longest day of the year. The atmosphere was amazing, and the crowd – despite ample beer – were incredibly well behaved. It’s was definitely a family-friendly event.
We spent the night wandering around, listening to folk singers and traditional bands, sitting by various bonfires, watching fire twirlers, and generally contemplating how cool it was that people have been doing pretty much this, on this night and in this place, for thousands of years. As the night went on, more and more people were jumping over the bonfires. Probably showing our age, we decided that it wasn’t necessarily the best idea after a couple of festive drinks. So we just stepped over some coals, and hoped the symbollic effort would be enough.
With mid-summer nearly upon us again, I’ve been looking up possible places to go this year. The celebration in Latvia where the menfolk of the town run naked through the main square is tempting. But I might just end up staying in Poland, where there will be bonfires, fireworks and girls floating garlands down the Vistula throughout the country on this and surrounding nights. Not to mention a free performance by Swedish super-group Europe on June 19, by the river under the Royal Castle.
My friend won’t be going anywhere, though. She has a two month-old baby boy to look after now. So maybe there’s a reason these traditions are so enduring after all…