Summer Solstice In Latvia
Uploaded by dykun on Jun 27, 2008
In Latvia, the biggest summer holiday, and arguably the most important of all yearly holidays, is the Summer Solstice or the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The territories that today form the Baltic States were the last to be Christianized in Europe, with the majority of the population "professing" the new faith not until the late medieval or early modern period.
The original, pre-Christian manner of celebrating what later became Christian holidays never died out and lies very close to the surface of things—and many in Latvia to this day stick as close to the pre-Christian traditions as possible. I was able to perform for a year with the folklore group Skandinieki, one of Latvia's most beloved folk ensembles and one that was part of the folk revival movement that began in the 1970s and that grew, by the late Soviet period, into a national movement for Latvian independence and cultural reawakening (a phenomena that took place in "captive nations" throughout the former USSR). What you see here is how the serious folklorists of Skandinieki celebrate the Summer Solstice.
For my audience that is mostly interested in things Ukrainian: This is the same holiday as our Den' Ivana Kupala, just in its Baltic-Latvian variant. "Janis" is Latvian for "Ivan" (Engl: John). The making of head-wreaths and garlands are as much an important part of the celebrations as they are in Ukraine--and "vinok" is in Latvian "vainags," which any linguist will recognize as coming from the same root as the Ukrainian word.
Interestingly enough, in the Latvian celebration men also wear a head-wreath made of oak leaves; though I will not say that this is never done in Ukraine (I have not seen it, but that doesn't mean that the making of oak-leave wreaths for men does not take place somewhere) what is relevant is the traditional reverence of the oak tree in both cultures. (Also, both cultures have a traditional reverence for the linden tree: "liepa" in Latvian, "lypa" in Ukrainian.)
Then of course note the central importance of fire in this holiday.
And just to be clear: I am not making any claim that either the Latvian or Ukrainian traditions or words are more original. What I do believe is that there existed a common Balto-Slavic linguistic and cultural community—a proto-Balto-Slavic language as well as culture—that was the direct ancestor of both the Slavic and Baltic languages in prehistoric times. To my mind the deep similarities between the grammars and lexicons of the two language families can not be the mere result of close cultural and linguistic contact.
HOWEVER, this is NOT to say that it is at all legitimate for one group to argue that it has carried-on either the ancient language, traditions or culture in a more original form in these modern times; furthermore, this is NOT to say that one group, claiming such an authentic role, has the right to gather up all the modern-day Balts and Slavs into one whole and return them to the ancient, original Balto-Slavic past.
For one thing is for certain: whatever existed back then in the Balto-Slavic prehistory is totally, irrevocably gone, and each descendent culture is, well descendent, changed, a "derivative" of that so-called "original" or "authentic" culture.
To cut right to the chase: Russian culture has no more--and by the same token, NO LESS--authenticity than any of the other Baltic or Slavic cultures. WHICH ALSO MEANS that it is dubious to resist Russian chauvinism and expansionism with arguments that Latvian (or Ukrainian) culture is more genuinely original or authentic! (Ancient Rus' was neither Ukrainian or Russian; this is like arguing ancient Rome was fundamentally Italian; Ukraine is as much a modern invention as is Russia, both are descendent from Rus' but Rus' was neither Russia nor Ukraine; Ukraine-Rus' exists only in the modern scholar's imagination)
That is, neither Ukrainian nor Latvian culture are in any way more original, either vis-a-vis Russian culture or the other Slavic and Baltic cultures. This entire debate is dubious.