What began as an important religious fertility festival has slowly evolved into a secular beer bash. To ancient Latvians Midsummer’s Eve, or Līgo & Jāņi, marked the longest day of the year when light both symbolic and literal was at its most potent. The old pagans celebrated with singing, dancing and large quantities of beer. Huge bonfires were set alight and as they eventually died down, revellers would jump over the flames for good luck. While the older generation was getting their load on, young lovers would take to the forests in search of the mythical fern blossom which only blooms on Midsummer’s Eve or so the story goes. Even now, people born in March (roughly nine months later) are often referred to as Jāņu bērni or the children of Jāņi. Participants are also expected to stay awake until sunrise, so get plenty of rest before the event as napping or retiring early are definitely frowned upon.
Today the festival is Latvia’s favourite holiday. Part ethnographic concert, part barbecue, part hedonistic drinking marathon, it’s celebrated throughout the countryside and many June conversations in Riga revolve around the question of where to spend the holiday, because locals wouldn’t dream of being trapped in the city for Midsummer’s Eve. Although each Latvian family celebrates it a little differently, a modern Latvian Midsummer consists of good friends, music, singing, truckloads of beer, caraway seed cheese, bonfires and several kilos of grilled meat enjoyed as far away from civilisation as possible. City folk often decorate their cars with oak leaf wreaths and flowers before heading out to the family farm and usually stop at one of the big hypermarkets on the edge of town to stock up on supplies creating an odd atmosphere at the checkout queue that’s part carnival and part survivalist shopping spree.
Latvians celebrate from June 23 - 24. Although beer gardens and shopping centres in Riga will still be open for business, smaller shops and many restaurants will be closed over the holiday. On the bright side, public transport in Riga will be free of charge on those two days.
A crafts fair will be held on Cathedral Square (Doma laukums) on June 21 from 09:00 - 17:00. You can buy plenty of food and drink as well as Latvian souvenirs and mandatory Midsummer supplies such as flower wreaths for women and oak-leaf wreaths for men. Ethnographic song and dance concerts with plenty of locals in national costume are also a mainstay of the fair. You can celebrate the main event on 11.novembra krastmala on June 23 from 20:00 until sunrise where you can buy traditional Latvian beer and food and listen to live music. Bonfires will also be lit and plenty of tents will be set up in case it rains.