Jaanipäev: Estonia's Most Important Holiday Decoded

The Chronicle of Livonia by Balthasar Russow, published in 1578. (Wikipedia Commons)
6/20/2014 4:10 PM
Category: Society
If you need proof that Estonia is a pagan nation at heart, you can get it this Monday and Tuesday, when time seemingly stands still.

The shops close, the roads are empty, and people simply disappear - especially from the cities. 

St John's Eve (Jaaniõhtu, also Jaanilaupäev) and St John's Day (Jaanipäev) are the most important days on the calendar in these parts, arguable much more important in the yearly calendar than Christmas.

Balthasar Russow had the holiday figured out long ago. Russow was one of the first writers who wrote about events in then-Livonia, and was the Lutheran pastor of the Church of the Holy Ghost in Old Town Tallinn.

He shared his frustration about Estonian’s approach to Jaanipäev in 1578 in his Livonian Chronicle journal, complaining about the lack of church attendence, and saying that the locals would rather spend their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, and singing. There will be little difference this year.

Former President Lennart Meri suggested that in his 1976 book, "Silverwhite," that Jaanipäev traditions, particularly the lighting of bonfires, re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite around 4,000 years ago, which left nine impact craters in Saaremaa. So, the holiday is one of Estonia’s connections to its ancient past.

Jaanipäev was merged with the celebration of Victory Day (Võidupüha), when Estonian forces defeated German troops in Latvia on June 23, 1919, which marked a high water mark against the region’s long-time occupiers, and linked with it with Estonia’s own ideas of freedom and independence. It shifted from an unofficial time off to a national holiday in 1992, when another occupation was receding. Appropriately, this year's Victory Day parade takes place in Valga and Valka, right across the border in Latvia.

Theoretically, St. John’s Day would be the brightest time of the year, coming just after the summer solstice on Friday. Estonia, though, it seems, is rarely blessed with good weather, and this year may be no exception, with rain in the forecast and the high temperature expected around 16 C, according to the national weather service.

But there will be fires, regardless. Look to any beach or clearing for signs of smoke. ERR News wishes you a good holiday, and we’ll be lighting our own bonfires until we return on Wednesday.


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