When it comes to holidays, only Christmas is more important than Midsummer in Estonia. Whoever doesn’t sit around a campfire somewhere in the country that night might as well hand his passport in at once and apply for political asylum in a country that does not celebrate Midsummer. Why don’t you try North Korea?
Weeks beforehand, you hear people ask each other: “So? What will you do this year with St John’s Day?”
Midsummer is called Jaanipäev in Estonian, literally: (St) John’s Day, a reference to St John the Baptist. Which of course does not mean that Midsummer in Estonia is a Christian holiday – the Estonians already celebrated it well before the Crusaders came to make it clear to those pagans that they better reached their quota of Hail Mary’s. Christians at the time liked to give a Christian meaning to any meaningful event.
Originally, Jaanipäev had obviously nothing to do with Christianity, but with the solstice on June 20, the longest day of the year (and, coincidentally, also my birthday). Midsummer falls on June 24 but is celebrated one night earlier, on Midsummer night. The period arrived when everyone had to lend a hand to get the hay from the fields. People resorted to traditions to enforce a good harvest. Nowadays, Midsummer presents a good opportunity for city dwellers to head for the countryside. Tallinn runs empty. Estonians have official leave from work on 23 and 24 June.
The answer to the previously asked question is, therefore: “With John’s Day? Ah, as usual. Then we’ll go to our summer house/the summer house of our friends/family/the village baker.” There isn’t a single living soul in Estonia without a summer house, or friends with a summer house. Or else, hand in that passport, there’s still room in North Korea.
When in Estonia, do as the Estonians. So on 23 June 2017, I’m freezing my limbs off around a fire in the countryside. Ever since, I know that every successful Estonian Midsummer requires six essential ingredients:
1=A piece of land in the wilderness
The further away from society, the better. Estonians are not the most social creatures and they love isolation. Privacy is the highest value. A good neighbour is the one of whom you see no more than the smoke from his chimney. Grouping people into communities was more a Soviet thing. Not that there were no villages in old Estonia, but even then the houses were spread out over a significant area, each of them having a large piece of land.
In this way, I’m doing well in the deep south of Estonia, in a corner on the border of Valgamaa and Põlvamaa. Dusty country lanes, sagged wooden houses, a chain of lakes: this is the Estonia that author Anton Hansen Tammsaare described in Truth and Justice, his five-part novel cycle about two neighbours that make each other’s lives a living hell. Very Estonian*.
Fortunately, Madis gets along very well with his neighbours. So well that they promised to come by later in the evening. Oh yes, they live about nine kilometres away.
Madis is the host of this Midsummer night party. He wears combat boots and a knife dangles from his belt. He built his summer house with his own hands. No more than a ruin remains of the original house on this land. A blacksmith once lived here, one of two blacksmiths in the village. Unfortunately for him, he was not particularly good at forging, at least not as good as his competitor. The blacksmith went mad with frustration and burned down his own house (by accident?). He survived the fire, his wife and children did not.
*The newspapers happily report about neighbour quarrels. Pärnu Postimees recently published a marvellous story about two neighbours who got into each other’s hair. One of them had built a structure too close to the dividing line. She had discussed this with the neighbour beforehand: it would be nothing more than a shed. He didn’t have a problem with that at first. Until it turned out that the building wasn’t just a shed, but a fully-fledged home. Furious with rage, he planted a basketball pole – including a giant sign – in front of the window of the house. Check the photos in this article, they’re gold.
Because of number 4, but also because a barbecue is indispensable. A Midsummer without it is like a Christmas without a spruce tree.
Talking about trees. I secretly suspect Estonians of having another reason to light a fire. The first male Estonian who doesn’t like to chop wood probably still resides in his father’s balls. Estonians love to claim that they’re hard workers. Historically, this was necessary to drain the swamps, remove the stones from the land and make it fertile. If Estonians wanted to get through the long winter, they had to work like horses in the summer. And certainly chop enough wood.
Tammsaare made a big contribution to the image of Estonian industriousness when he wrote: “Work hard and love will follow.” Every Estonian can cite that quote. But not everyone knows the following line: “You’ve worked your whole life and I don’t see any love in this household.” BAM!
Many Estonians consider sizeable pieces of meat on it just as indispensable as the barbecue itself. Some don’t eat anything but shashlick and won’t touch a single vegetable. But fortunately, these are not present in large numbers where I celebrate. We make veggie skewers, cauliflowers with blue cheese and campfire-baked potatoes, throw eggplants and peppers on the grill and eat until our bellies are round. Just like Christmas, Midsummer is traditionally an opportunity to eat yourself an indigestion. But the liquid part of the banquet is equally important, so:
3=A socially accepted hard drug of your choice
Beer, wine, rum or vodka – it doesn’t matter, as long as it flows in large quantities.
Alcohol is an important motive for celebrating Midsummer: every reason to drink yourself into a coma is a good one. One day before Midsummer, I already saw someone dance with joy in a supermarket in Lasnamäe.
Drinking is not a new Midsummer phenomenon. You can say it’s part of the traditions. After the Christians claimed Midsummer, chronicler Balthasar Russow remarked with some disgust that the Estonians did not enter the church, but instead engaged themselves with “burning fires, drinking, singing, and performing pagan rituals.”
The question remains how Estonians drink. Just like their Finno-Ugric brothers on the northern side of the Baltic Sea, Estonians have difficulties with moderation.
(To illustrate: a Finnish mate from Turku, a doctor, once told me how he had tried to go for an after-work drink with his colleagues. It ended in the dead of night, with a pack of completely shit-faced doctors and nurses who had to go to work the next morning. That was, obviously, the one and only time he had suggested something like that.)
Estonian historian and politician Lauri Vahtre describes the drinking behaviour of his compatriots in Estonians Inside and Out: “Italians and French drink wine because they’re thirsty, and to become cheerful, social and funny, so that after some joy, they can start singing and then dancing. Estonians drink because they can no longer tolerate the darkness, the humidity and the grey sky, just like [here we go again] the nastiness of their neighbours and their own wasted lives, and the ultimate goal of drinking is to lose consciousness. This sacred mission unites the Estonians with the Finns and the Russians, with the understanding that the Finns and the Russians have to beat someone up or at least molest some furniture before they reach the grand finale.”
Conclusion: I’m happy that I’m not in Finland or Russia.
(The quotes have been translated from English to Dutch and back again, so apologies if they’re not 100% accurate.)
And no, I’m not talking about an Estonian called Rain.
I already mentioned that Midsummer is just as important as Christmas. What I didn’t tell you: the weather does not differ that much between both holidays. These days, you can sometimes still see gloves, hats or ski suits. That’s why number 2 is so crucial.
Traditionally, it rains on Midsummer night. Estonians are busy building an ad hoc shelter over their campfire. Because, as you now know, the campfire is sacred. Fortunately, we are spared from the rain this time. But not from mosquitoes. Repellent is absolutely indispensable during the summer in Estonia. Fortunately, all stores sell an insect spray called OFF!, such a chemical bomb that I suspect it is made from Chernobyl leftovers. I think you can not only kill mosquitoes with it but also small rodents.
“Well, that’s seven different flowers”, says Anete while she adds the final piece to her bouquet. “Now I have to jump over seven different fences, put the flowers under my pillow and I will dream of my future husband.”
It’s just one example of superstitions linked to Midsummer in Estonia. Many of them are related to a good harvest. These days, good luck replaces a good harvest.
Our group lacks a fruitcake that dares, but it is a tradition to jump over the campfire. This way, you can assure yourself of prosperity and avoid bad luck. In practice, certainly in combination with number 3, these fire acrobatics often results in the opposite.
Midsummer night is the only moment that the fern flower blooms. Since seeing it brings good luck, couples look for the fern flower in the forest. In reality, Anete tells me, the reason for that nocturnal escape is quite different.
Love is in the air during Midsummer night. According to an Estonian fairytale, it’s the only time when two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (twilight) can exchange a fleeting kiss. The rest of the year, they’re stuck in a pitiful long-distance relationship.
Some Estonians also think they can talk to animals on the Midsummer morning, although number 3 undoubtedly has a lot to do with that.
The sauna is as much an Estonian as a Finnish tradition, although the Estonians make less fuzz about it. Preferably, an Estonian builds his own sauna. This is also true of Madis. He has erected a plastic tent. Using an old machine with which the army boiled water, he supplies the tent with steam. “In the sauna, you breathe in the lake – isn’t that beautiful?” And as it should be, a wooden quay leads straight to the cooling Linnujärv, literally: Bird lake.
Madis talks about his friend who was fishing here, early in the morning, and suddenly heard a splash. “He wondered who was swimming so early. Until he saw a moose swim by.”
When we push a canoe on the lake and paddle through the mystical fog, we experience the true meaning of a white night in Estonia. Magical!