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The Day the Sun Stands Still (June 2010)

Each year, toward the end of June, the sun stands still in Latvia. Actually, it stands still everywhere in the world because that’s what solstice means in Latin – the moment when the sun stops moving in one direction and starts moving in another. What the rest of the world doesn’t know is that the only reason the sun does start moving again is because the Latvians will it so.
Some scientists may disagree, but they’ve probably never stayed up all night with Latvians on the night of June 23 If you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it.

Granted, some astrophysicists may question the efficacy of this time-honored Latvian practice, since in the Northern Hemisphere where Latvia is located the Summer Solstice falls on the night of June 20-21.

But Latvians, like a lot of fellow Europeans have always celebrated this primeval pagan Midsummer’s Day festival a few days after the solstice itself. Shakespeare was so impressed he
even wrote a play about it.

In Latvia, the Midsummer celebration is a 2-day affair that starts on Ligo Day, June 23rd, and continues on Jaņi, June 24. It is one of the oldest and popular celebrations of Latvian culture, and the one thing Latvians do not do during these sacred days of ritual and revelry, is stand still.

To celebrate Līgo and Jāni, Latvians leave their cities to congregate around roaring bonfires in the forests and fields of Latvia’s countryside. They make special foods and beverages, sing midsummer songs, dance magical dances and partake in a wide array of traditional activities with deep roots in Latvian folklore. With meadow grasses thick and tall, and flowers in full bloom, they are without a doubt the happiest and most mystical days of the year in Latvia.

For example, most pteridologists (people who study ferns) will tell you that ferns don’t have blossoms. But Latvians know better. Centuries of trial and error have proven that if young people (especially a boy and a girl) go out into the forest on Līgo night, and are extremely patient, alert and receptive, they will see a fern reveal its blossom at precisely midnight. They may discover a few other things in the process, but that’s another story. (If you want to hear an
eyewitness account of this phenomenon from a veteran fern blossom finder, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ikPVAl1MOs

The list of things you can (or should) do on Līgo night and Jāņi morning is as long and mysterious as the Lielvārdes josta (a Latvian wool and linen belt woven with mystic symbols and often used to solve the riddles of the universe). Since the sun’s energy is at its peak, meadow grasses are greener, water has accentuated healing properties, and beer and cheese taste better than at any other time of the year. (Be sure to wash your face in the morning dew!)

According to one tradition, if a maiden stares into a lake on Līgo night, she will see her future husband. Another tradition has it that young men should strip naked on Jāņi morning and bathe in a local lake while young women cheer them on. (When you think about it, this second tradition makes the first one a lot less mysterious.)

Bonfire jumping is another Līgo tradition, but you have to do it in pairs while holding hands. Women gather meadow flowers and weave floral wreathes to wear on their heads. Men named Jānis wear wreathes made of oak leaves, although some exceptions are allowed. For example, Monty Python’s Michael Palin visited Latvia for his travel documentary “New Europe” and since he happened to be here on Līgo night, he too donned an oak leaf chapeau. (You can see him in his oaken splendour at http://palinstravels.co.uk/static-206.)

Not only Palin, but a lot of other sociologists, philosophers and journalists are coming around to the conclusion that the Latvian celebration of Midsummer plays a very special role in the whole cosmic scheme of things. As I said in the beginning, Latvians stay up all night, and when the sun sets, they sing special songs to make it rise again. To date, Latvians have been wildly successful at this, because in recorded history the sun has never failed to rise again after hearing the appropriate Latvian folk songs. So the next time you see the sun rise on
June 24th, thank the Latvians.
And don’t forget to Līgo!

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