Student Snapshot: Celebrating Jāņi
Irina Mariotti is from Bolzano in northern Italy. She started her medical studies at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) in February 2016.
What is your favourite time of year in Riga?
June is one of my favourite months in the city. Every corner of the city is decorated with colourful flower compositions. The gardening culture is something I really like. Jāņi, or Midsummer Day, is one of my favourite Latvian celebrations.
How do you feel about how light it is here in the summers? Were you surprised?
It was kind of a shock, because it’s so dark during the winters! I started in February, so it was like -17 degrees and snow. I’m used to snow because I come from northern Italy, but the darkness is something I still have a hard time with. It’s opposite in the summer, though, and it always makes me happy! I’m very smiley and talk randomly to people. The weather affects me a lot.
How do you celebrate Jāņi?
The first one I celebrated was in 2017. I remember an amazing sunset and my friends and I going to the market to look for the best flower wreaths. My study group had decided to eat and celebrate together. The most memorable part of the celebration was the huge bonfire on the Daugava River, which is said to bring good luck and health throughout the year. Unfortunately I will not be in Riga this year, but I would love to spend Jāņi in a country house next year to celebrate solstice together with my friends.
What do you tell your friends back home?
The best way to explain Jāņi is to talk about the never-ending days and colourful sunsets, the food, drinks and being surrounded by music and laughter.
Hannah Katharina Schöberl is a 6th year medical student at RSU.
How do you celebrate Jāņi?
I really like Līgo here, because we have this tradition with the German Student Association (Deutsche Studenten im Ausland – DSiA), that us girls go and make flower crowns by ourselves. We meet by the market and do some shopping, and then go to somebody’s apartment to make the crowns and have a little breakfast. For dinner we have a barbecue together at a friend’s place because she has a roof terrace. Everyone brings a salad or a dessert or something.
Afterwards we take our bikes and go to Dzegužkalns. We sit there and listen to the traditional music. Some people go dancing, and some throw their old crowns into the fire. I’ve never stayed until sunrise, but some of my friends have. I bike home when I get tired. A lot of people leave Latvia if they don’t have exams anymore, but I always ended up having an exam right after midsummer, so I have often stayed.
Do you think it’s a tradition you’ll continue, or introduce to people back home?
Yes, I think it’s the nicest Latvian tradition and the most accessible for international students. It’s the only day that Rimi closes early, so that’s the thing that makes everyone realise that there’s something big going on! No one is on the streets and everything is closed.
What was the first time you celebrated Jāņi like?
The first time I celebrated Jāņi in Latvia was together with my Latvian girlfriend and her friends and family in the village Jaunpils. There was a lot of food, and interestingly on Jāņi, women also tend to drink beer instead of wine or other drinks, because, as I found out, drinking beer on Midsummer’s Day will promote the growth of barley and production of cow’s milk the next summer. Whoever has the traditional Latvian folk dress also wears it on this day. We also enjoyed a lot of food, like Jāņi cheese, a special cheese with cumin seeds inside – quite an interesting cheese and not bad in the eyes of a Dutch cheese-head! We sang old Latvian songs, which was a bit more difficult for me as a foreigner. A big part of the fun is the weather, so if it’s cold it would be less enjoyable, but my girlfriend’s family told me about the Latvian saying that it ‘always rains’ on Jāņi so that I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but the weather remained very nice. Besides singing and eating, another tradition is to jump over the bonfire, quite dangerous I suppose, especially later on in the evening, but it all went well and was a fun experience. The goal is to stay up till sunrise, but luckily Latvia is far north, so the summer sun already started to rise around 04:30, which made it easier.
What do you like about Jāņi?
What stood out for me were the many songs and poems and also the Latvian national dress. It’s really impressive to see such nice folk costumes. In the Netherlands, where I am from, the only place you would see such clothes would be in famous paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt or Frans Hals. And finally – the flower wreaths were very impressive, a lot of work goes into making those!
What are you planning to do for Jāņi this year?
This year I am going on a road trip even further west than Jaunpils. My girlfriend and I are going together with three other Latvian friends. We have booked a beautiful place close to Liepāja, on the west coast of Latvia and we’re looking forward to a beautiful sunset on the beach, good food, and hopefully good weather!
How do you explain what Jāņi is to your friends back home?
When asked how I would explain the celebrations to others, I would say, find some Latvian friends and join them and see for yourself!