Jaanipäev in Estonia

Every year there’s at least one week in June, where Estonians seem to escape the town. Where are they going? And why do they feel the need to disappear from city life? And when are they coming back? 

I’m talking about Jaanipäev or St. John’s Day or Midsummer day or Summer Solstice. So many names for this one special event. One is clear in Estonia we also call the 24th of June a “red day” – meaning it’s marked red in our calendars as a national holiday. Most Estonians who I know, grab their friends, pack their bags and car, make a pitstop in a local supermarket, to buy buckets filled with marinated meat, some cider or beer, and maybe a watermelon. Then stepping on gas pedals, they enjoy seeing the city silhouette becoming a mist in the back window and welcome the fresh smells of nature, sunny seaside, and village life. There’s probably a bonfire, a sauna, and some cool drinks waiting to be enjoyed and unfortunately annoying mosquitos to feed. 

That’s the thing – Jaanipäev or St. John’s Day or Midsummer day or Summer Solstice in Estonia is a big deal. Most villages around Estonia throw village parties, which means gatherings around the local town center or next to the main store or pub. It might also be the only time you eventually get to see all the people living in your tiny village. Or a chance for the people spending only their holiday time there, to see, who else lives there. As Estonians describe them with the expression: people, who summer there – *“to summer” (suvitama) – local expression for folks, who have a summer cottage or relatives living in the countryside, but they are living somewhere else. 

So what happens during that party?

Whether it happens in someone’s private garden or as a public event, one is clear – there is always going to be a real fire! As a bonfire or in the barbeque. As fire has abilities to give warm and cook food – both are used during the evening. Depends on how much tradition is honored, some read special verses when lighting up the fire (for example süti, süti lõke), some sing songs around the fire, some dance around the fire, some walk clockwise circles for good luck, and some jump over the flames for leisure activity. 

Another tradition for kids is to play traditional games like booth throwing, potato bag race, running with an egg on the spoon, and for grown-ups tug-of-war, where the tension can build up pretty fast.

After physical activities, there’s food and drinks. Maybe a local band warms up the crowd and the dance floor starts to fill up with people. Girls often enjoy picking fresh field flowers and weave themselves beautiful flower wreaths. Nevertheless, it stays pretty light the entire night, when midnight approaches, it’s a tradition to go and look for glowworms to light up in the long grass. As a mission impossible goal – we have a saying, whoever finds fern blossoms during Midsummer night, shall also find eternal love and richness. 

Since there is so much nature involved it seems only appropriate to enjoy it all somewhere outside the city.

How did you celebrate Jaanipäev and what kind of traditions do you honor? 

Found in Estonia podcast

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