They may be suffering from one of the world's worst recessions but all the economic doom and gloom will not keep Latvians from having fun at a midsummer's night festival dating from pagan times.
"It is a tradition here," 45-year-old Nina told AFP outside a Riga supermarket. "Everyone entertains themselves as they can. Sure, we'll cut out small things to spend less this year but the tradition will remain."
AdvertisementDeeply rooted in pagan customs handed down from generation to generation, the "Jani" festival is held on June 23 as the summer solstice marks northern Europe's longest day of the year, when Latvia enjoys almost 18 hours of daylight.
When ancient Latvians converted to Christianity in the 13th century, the church adopted the pagan Jani sun-worshipping holiday as the feast of Saint John, or Janis in Latvian, the Baptist. Centuries on, pagan traditions still remain an integral part of the festivities.
This year the holiday comes as Latvia's government has been forced to cut most public sector salaries by 20 percent and pensions by 10 percent along with a raft of other cuts in order to meet the terms of an international bailout.
The economy is expected to contract by 18 percent this year, the worst decline in the 27 member European Union.
Yet Latvians appear to be taking the crisis in stride.
"We're not going to Paris to celebrate Jani," says 25-year-old Riga resident Dace.
"It's a tradition to spend Jani together with family and friends in the countryside here, in Latvia. And it can be very inexpensive, so no, the crisis doesn't really impact the way we plan to spend the holiday," she says.
On the eve of the midsummer festival, Latvians flee the cities and, crowned with wreaths of oak leaves, flock to the countryside.
Regarded as a holy tree in pagan times, the oak still features widely in Latvian folk songs.
For centuries, the midsummer festivities had a traditional menu of treats such as cheese, butter and milk.
But in a concession to modernity, many of today's parties feature barbecues and beer, meaning traffic police are out in force to catch drunk drivers. Festivities traditionally include copious amounts of drink, huge bonfires and midnight skinny-dips in local lakes or ponds.
At least two Latvian towns plan to host a slightly more modern tradition, pre-dawn runs starting at 3.00 am Wednesday where all participants run naked.
Police are to be on hand in case of any "puritan" protesters, while the bare naked runners will be rewarded with beer.
"Jani is an important cultural event for Latvians," Inese Berzina told AFP at the pre-midsummer market organized this week on a central square in Riga.
"It connects us with our ancestors and nature and Latvians love nature," she said.
The conversion to Christianity, centuries-long German domination and even the Soviet occupation (1945-1991) failed to blot out the holiday.
"The crisis is really no obstacle to the celebration," Berzina said.
Yet some are feeling the pinch and are in no mood to celebrate.
"I'll be staying home. I don't feel like celebrating because they cut our pensions and because of my age," 75-year-old Riga pensioner Elena told AFP.
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