Jun 20, 2016

Jaanipaev: The Midsummer Beefcake Festival of Estonia

In 1998, Yuri and I were in Johvi, Estonia for Jaanipäev, St. John's Day, a national holiday.

The day before, June 23rd, is Võidupüha, Victory Day, commemorating the Estonian War of Independence, and the struggle for freedom of all of the Baltic nations.

St. John's Day, June 24th, is the longest day of the year.  The sun doesn't set until 11:00 pm.

People go swimming, have barbecues, get drunk, and most importantly, light bonfires to signify the triumph of summer over winter.

It's warm -- in the 60s -- so everybody's shirt comes off.  It's a parade of Baltic beefcake.

You're supposed to jump over the bonfire for luck. It's a good idea to do it in your underwear, so your clothes don't catch on fire.

Adherents of Estonian paganism, Maausk, sometimes jump nude.

When it finally gets dark, people pair off and head out into the woods to look for a special fern that just blooms once a year.

Yeah, right, that's what they're doing.

There are similar midsummer festivals all over the Balkans and Scandinavia.  In Finland they involve both bonfires and saunas, naturally.

In the Slavic countries, St. John's Eve is like Halloween, a time when the barrier between our world and the spirit world fails, and there are ghosts and goblins running around. Gay Russian writer Nikolai Gogol's short story "St. John's Eve" is about a man who searches for a treasure that can only be discovered that night, but meets the devil instead.

See also: Yuri and I Cruise in Estonia.