Friday, June 28, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Prior to my travels to Lithuania, I did as all travelers do: read books about the country. While perusing the my traveler’s guides, I took note of the events that would happen during my summer here. Joninės seemed like the most fun event that falls on a day that teeters between Paganism and Catholicism. On the one hand, it is also known as John's Day, as in Saint John, and we celebrate all those who are named John on this name day. On the other hand, it is also known as the Midsummer, and a large festival is held at Kernavė, an ancient settlement site, to celebrate the summer solstice. 
As one of our roommates is named Jon, we celebrated him throughout the day. All of us soon piled into a car and took off for Kernavė to see the big festival. I expected to see fires and dancing, but perhaps of only a hundred people or so. I was so wrong!
Once we arrived, there was no parking to be found so we had to walk quite a distance to get to the festival. Once there I saw many kiosks of food, beer, toys, traditional trinkets and more. It seems more like I was at a market than at a festival, and it was packed with well over a hundred people. We squeezed through this market-like area to come up to a beautiful church. 

Beyond the church were the famous hills of Kernavė, which are known to have been inhabited as far back at the Paleolithic period. The hills represent the remains of settlements, covered back up by earth, and are a site out of an archeologist's dream! This is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site! If the hills themselves were not impressive enough, once again I was proved wrong by the hundreds and hundreds of people here. We just barely managed to find the people we were there to meet up with. 

Once we made a little camp, Kaitlin and I were ready to engage in some traditional activities. We took off to the fields to find flowers for our head wreaths. This is no easy business, by the way. The stems kept breaking, I could not get them to tie together. Eventually we figured it out and were able to get them to stay together. As my first head wreath, I think I did a good job.
As soon as dusk came, we saw a group of people walking down the hill lead by a group of torch-carriers in traditional dress. We decided to follow them and fell in line. They led us to the farthest hill where a pyre was waiting. I learned that this was to celebrate the setting of the sun on the longest day of the year. After prayers, they lit the fire. Three women stood next to the fire, as well as a drummer and a cellist. They were surrounded by people all representing different areas of Lithuania. The woman began singing in a traditional manner called sutartinės, which can be explained in many different ways; however this was three voices harmonizing with different words, which came together in a chorus. They threw crushed amber into the fire and into the crowd, and drank a traditional tea.

After this we went back to our camp to enjoy a bit of meat and mead before another bonfire was lit, this time on the first hill where we were, again to celebrate the beginning of night. We talked with locals who could speak English or those who could tell we were American and came to us. We danced and listened to Lithuanian music, and participated in Midsummer games. Before we left, they lit one more bonfire on our hill, as they would be lit on each hill, to burn throughout the shortest night of the year. This experience was one that I will never forget, and was certainly the most ancient celebration I have ever had the pleasure of participating in.