Midsummer, Jaanipäev, St John's (the Baptist) Day is as important as Christmas here in Eesti. Its old Estonian name was probably just suvisted, from suvi, summer, and meaning, approximately "The Summer Festival". The Christian name was given by the crusaders. The imposition of Christianity, however, did not end the fertility rituals associated with midsummer. In 1578, the chronicler Pastor Balthasar Russow grizzled about those who arrived at church, but did not bother to attend service and lit bonfires, drank, danced, sang and took part in "pagan rituals", probably a polite way of saying orgies. Plus ça change, I am pleased to report.
For modern Estonians, Jaanipäev celebrations are merged with the celebration of jaaniõhtu, St John's Eve, that is now also Võidupüha (Victory Day). On this day during the War of Independence the army of Estonia, with the aid of the Latvians, defeated the old enemy, the German Landeswehr, on 23 June 1919 at Võnnu, now Cesis, in Latvia in a real 'David and Goliath' contest. No prizes for guessing who was David and who Goliath.
In the old farming calendar Jaanipäev marked the start of haymaking. The best known ritual is probably jumping over the jaanituli, or bonfire (not recommended without asbestos underpants). This warded off witches from the cattle and weeds from the crops. Old Jaanipäeva songs are full of such sentiments as "If you don't come to the fire on St John's day, your barley will be fill of thistles and your oats full of bent grass". 3 sticks would be thrown into the fire with the invocation "Gold-of-pleasure into the fire, bent grasses flee away and the flax grows in the field."
Midsummer's eve is important for lovers, when Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk) see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night. Earthly lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on St John's Night, a legend also told by the eastern Slavs and Lithuanians. And here is Karl Ristikivi's mysterious 1972 mournful salutation to St John's night, written from homesick exile. The rhythm and rhyme has been preserved as far as is possible and this is, I can tell you, fiendishly difficult!
From: Ferns (Sõnajalad).
Translated by Loone Ots & Hilary Bird
In Maarjamaa*, grows the virgin's own fern,
fan of the mother of God,
whose maiden cheek is moistly caressed
by night-dew of Jaan the blessed,
Along ancient ruins, down the ragged ridge,
under ancient trees so old
root in the sweet earth and poisonously bad
Dryopteris filix mas**
A dryad peers from gnarled, knotty trunk,
the night, it has nine sons***.
Nine flowers under the pillow of the bed,
lest you remain unwed
Maria, when did you visit our land
and caress our St John's night fern?
When did you the land with your name baptize?
Oh, let a miracle rise!
(*Maarjamaa (Mary's land) = name given to Estonia by Crusaders; **Dryopteris filix mas.= fern; ***nine sons of the night = a folk proverb about weather)
May your barley be thistle free, your oats without bent grass and your flax grow mightily!
Bird droppings from Estonia: Midsummer in Eesti (1)