TALLINN - The tiny Baltic state of Estonia went wild yesterday, as people lit thousands of bonfires nationwide and were set to party into the early hours of the next day in their traditional Midsummer festival.
The annual "Jaanilaupaev" celebrations, held every June 23 to mark the summer's "white nights" in northern European countries, are rooted deeply in the pagan traditions of Estonia, which converted to Christianity in the 13th century, far later than western Europe.
Similar festivals take place in neighbouring Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia, and are also celebrated worldwide by expatriates from all three countries.
"First of all, it's a celebration of the sun and sunlight. The most important Midsummer ritual is lighting a bonfire," Maarja Kouts, organiser of one of the biggest parties in the Estonian capital Tallinn, said. "It's believed in Estonia that fire has the power to cleanse the surrounding area of bad spirits and to grant prosperity and a good harvest to people who attend the ritual," she said.
Last year, the party held at the Estonian Open Air Museum in Tallinn drew more than 5,000 people to the vast bonfire on the shores of the Baltic Sea.
The fire is also believed to have the power to heal you. Everyone has to go to a bonfire at least once during the evening," Kouts said. Midsummer is also for lovers.
In an Estonian folk tale two sweethearts, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk), meet just once a year and exchange a brief kiss during the shortest night.
Besides attending bonfire parties, amorous Estonians are meant to head into the forest in search of a fern flower that is said to bloom only that night and to grant everlasting love to those who see it. For centuries, the Midsummer festivities had a traditional fare of cheese, butter and milk.
But in a concession to modernity, many of today's parties feature barbecues. "We usually sit near the bonfire with our family and friends, grill meat and just have fun long after midnight," nine-year-old Sander Kukk said.
Source : AFP