Baltic midsummer feast draws on a distant past

Riga  - Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians around the world are set to celebrate midsummer festivals Monday night with rites drawing deeply on pagan traditions of the Baltic people.

Marking the two longest days of the year, the celebration is called Jani in Latvia, Jaanipaev in Estonia, and Saint Jonas festival in Lithuania.

Christianity adopted the sun-worship holiday as the one dedicated to John the Baptist, but centuries later, pagan traditions still remain an integral part of the celebration.

On June 23, Latvians crowned with wreaths of oak leaves flock to the countryside. Regarded as a holy tree in pagan times, the oak still features widely in Latvian folk songs.

As the evening draws in, Latvians and Estonians light bonfires and sing folk songs or jump through the flames, seen as a way to guarantee prosperity. The white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Riga light up with bonfires as Latvians and Estonians flee cities to nature.

Balts also grill shashliks, eat cheese and consume copious quantities of alcohol, although these are not generally seen as being specifically pagan traditions.

In Estonia and Latvia, the holiday has a meaning for lovers, who are set to seek a fern flower that is said to bloom only once a year on that night.

Estonian folklore tells a tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hamarik (dusk), who meet once each year to exchange kisses on the shortest night of the year. Single folks can find out whom they will marry.

None of the three Baltic nations quit celebrating the holiday when they were part of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991.

Those who fled their occupied homeland for the West because of the Soviet occupation continued celebrating the holiday in their homes in the United States, Australia and Britain - just like those who stayed behind.

It cemented their ethnic identities, connecting them to their distant ancestors, whether Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians found themselves in a foreign land or in the occupied home.

Early on Tuesday, at least two Latvian towns will host a more modern tradition - pre-dawn naked runs. Police will be on hand for any "puritan" protesters, while the runners will be rewarded with beer. (dpa)