Saturday, June 28, 2008


There is a famous letter, written by a German cleric, sometime in the 19th century, complaining to his superiors in Germany about the loose morals of the Estonian people. The good father attests to the fact that his flock would come to his church on midsummer night as required, but that afterwards they would all go out and have large bonfires and sing, and drink, and dance, and have sex.

I have always held that this cleric’s complaint accurately characterizes the Estonians’ approach toward religion. The church has always tried to take pagan celebrations away from the people, the expropriation of the midwinter holidays being the most successful example of this. But they have not succeeded with Jaanipäev, at least not in Estonia. The only thing they did was to name the otherwise nameless day. (Jaan is the common Estonian name for John and päev is day, so it’s the vulgar version of St. John’s Day, which is what the church wanted to call midsummer day).

Today the Jaani tradition lives, and it is coupled to a national holiday that occurs on the 23rd of June when the nation commemorates the victory of the Estonian Liberation Army over the troops of the German Landeswehr at Võnnu (Cēsis, Latvia) in 1919. This was a decisive battle against Baltic Germans who wanted to retain the region as a German colony. The fate of the young republic was decided on that day, and thus both the 23rd and the 24th of June are, as one Estonian said with a straight face, “Holy Days”. Indeed, the capital city empties out. Woe be to you if you want a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. The nation is celebrating both its independence, and its summer.

We went to a Jaanipäev celebration a few kilometers up the coast, to a town named Viimsi. They have an open air museum of history, including a village swing, which was put to great use by the youngsters.

There were bands that played tunes ranging from Euro Pop to old country to patriotic, and some of the old people had a great time dancing.

As midnight approached, the great fire was slowly dying, and the sun was setting in Finland across the gulf. During this night it would not ever get really dark, and dawn was only a few hours away. In the meantime, the Estonians celebrated their day as they had for centuries. There was drinking, and dancing, and singing, and whatever.


1 comment:

rollingestonian5 said...

That is an amazing picture. I have alwasy tried to tell others what the Nordic sunsets are like, but it's impossible to explain. What an experience, and what an image!