Midsummer's Day or jaanipäev is among the most important and beloved holidays in Estonia, governed by customs old and new and marking a time when Estonians come together to celebrate nature and friendships.
Midsummer's Eve is celebrated with smaller and larger gatherings around bonfires on June 23, which is also Estonia's Victory Day, celebrating the victory in the Battle of Võnnu over the Landeswehr in 1919. Midsummer Day itself is held on June 24 and is also a national holiday.
As one of the most important summer holidays in the Estonian folk calendar, roughly marking the summer solstice and corresponding to the English Midsummer Day, jaanipäev is widely considered to be the most important holiday in Estonia, surpassing even Christmas, which the relatively irreligious Estonians nevertheless love to celebrate.
One myth suggests that the typical jaanipäev celebration involving a bonfire started around the time of the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa some 4,000 years ago, and that the bonfire is there to symbolize and reenact the meteorite's fall, which is said to have been like the sun rising again in the middle of the night.
Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of võidupüha (Victory Day) during the War of Independence when Estonian forces defeated the German troops on June 23, 1919.
On Midsummer Eve or jaaniõhtu, Estonians gather with families and friends, or at larger community events, to celebrate with singing, dancing and lighting bonfires as they have for centuries.
Some jaanipäev rituals have folkloric roots going back a very long time, such as lighting bonfires and young people jumping over them as a way to guarantee prosperity and avoid bad luck in life.
Midsummer's Eve is also an important time for young lovers. Among Estonian folk tales and literature there is the tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year. The time around the summer solstice sees what are known as white or light nights in Estonia when the sun only sets very briefly and even then it hardly gets fully dark.
Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night. Everyone with even a cursory knowledge of botany of course knows that ferns are not flowering plants and therefore never bloom, which also gives the tradition the significance of always searching for perfection, even though one knows they might never find it. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions involving different flowers to see whom they are going to marry.
The arrival of Christianity eventually saw jaanipäev rituals merged with St. John's Eve to commemorate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, which also gives jaanipäev or John's Day its modern name.
These days, jaanipäev celebrations tend to involve drinking a lot of beer and wine and eating grilled meats or vegetables accompanied by summer salads. It is also popular to spend jaanipäev on the Western Estonian islands or elsewhere sufficiently removed from home, which also gives Estonians the chance to catch up with friends and relatives living in other parts of the country.
Editor: Marcus Turovski, Helen Wright