#13   The day the sun stands still

Each year, toward the end of June, the sun stands still in Latvia. Actually, it stands still everywhere in the world, because that’s what ‘solstice’ means in Latin – the moment when the sun stops moving in one direction and starts moving in another. In the Northern Hemisphere where Latvia is located, the longest day of the year comes on the Summer Solstice, June 21st.  The ancient European pagan festivals that accompany this singular astronomical event are called Midsummer’s Day and usually fall a few days after the solstice itself. Shakespeare even wrote a play about it.

In Latvia, the Midsummer celebration is a 2-day affair that starts on Līgo day, June 23rd and continues on Jāņi, June 24th.  It is one of the oldest and most popular celebrations of Latvian culture, and the one thing Latvians do not do during these sacred days of ritual and revelry, is stand still!

To celebrate Līgo and Jāņi, Latvians leave their cities and congregate around bonfires in the forests and fields of the countryside. They make special foods and beverages, sing midsummer songs, dance traditional dances and partake in a wide array traditional activities with deep roots in Latvian folklore. With meadow grasses thick and tall, and flowers in full blossom, they are without a doubt the happiest and most mystical days of the year in Latvia.

Latvians also do something else on this day that is extremely important to the rest of the world. They stay up all night, and when the sun sets, they sing special songs to make it rise again. To date, Latvians have been wildly successful at this, because in recorded history the sun has never failed to rise again after hearing the appropriate Latvian folk songs. So the next time you see the sun rise on June 24th, thank the Latvians.

#14   Waving the flag

Every country has a flag, and every flag has a story. The maroon-white-maroon national flag of Latvia has several stories. Some are very old and legendary, some are fairly recent, and all carry a deep meaning for Latvians.

The Latvian flag is considered to be one of the oldest in the world and dates back to a battle against Estonian tribes near the Latvian town of Cesis in the 13th century. According to one legend, it originated from a white sheet that was used to carry a mortally wounded Latvian tribal chief from the battlefield. Soaked with his blood on two sides, his soldiers hoisted the warrior’s sheet as a banner as it led them to victory.

Austria has a similar flag (brighter red with different proportions) that dates back to the same period and comes with a similar legend about blood and battles. Since there was no Internet back then, it’s doubtful whether anyone copied from anyone. We can assume that the near simultaneous births of these two eventual national banners was pure coincidence.

During the 1860’s a Latvian student discovered a reference to this flag in old historical chronicles, and in 1917, Latvian artist Ansis Cīrulis used this historical description to design the flag that became the official national flag of Latvia in 1921.

The maroon and white flag of Latvia was banned by the Soviets after the 1940 occupation, and until 1988, anyone who dared raised it usually ended up in jail, or worse.  One June 14, 1988, five young Latvians decided that it was time to raise the flag once more. Konstatins Pupurs, Anta Bergmane, Miervaldis Krims, Roberts Klimkovičs and Jānis Alberts signed their names on the banned flag, and Pupurs defiantly carried it to lead a mass demonstration calling for the restoration of Latvia’s independence. With each ensuing demonstration, the number of flags increased until there was a sea of them at every public rally.

Latvians have been waving their flag with pride for the last 20 years. It goes up on all buildings on public holidays, and has become a familiar symbol at world ice hockey championships. If you ever go to a game between Latvia and Austria, it’s easy to tell the two national flags apart. The Latvian flag is darker, with a narrow white stripe in the middle, and the people waving them tend to sing and cheer a lot louder.

#15   Storks are not tourists

I once made the mistake of saying that storks are Latvia’s most spectacular summer tourists. An ornithologist quickly corrected me. ‘Home’ is where you build your nest and raise your children, and each summer an estimated 8,000 pairs of White Storks make their homes in Latvia. They just spend their winters 7,000 kilometres away in Africa.

Take a ride out into the Latvian countryside and you can’t miss them. Latvia has 5% of the world’s White Stork population. And one of the densest concentrations of stork nests in all of Europe – up to 65 nests per 100 sq. km. Although half are in trees, the other half are very visible on man-made objects – chimneys, telephone and electric poles, and rooftops. The average nest is around 30 years old, and the oldest known nest in Latvia today is a respectable 57. Stork nests are natural architectural wonders – sturdy, heavy and extremely difficult to remove or dismantle.  Just how those storks get those massive nests to balance on thin telephone poles I’ll never know.

White Storks were not always a part of the Latvian landscape. They started arriving around the 16th century, as forests were cleared for farmland. That revealed that Latvia’s fields and farmlands were full of those tasty frogs and insects that storks love to dine on. You know that we couldn’t have had White Storks in ancient Latvia, because Latvian folk poems – the dainas – never mention them.

But we did have Black Storks. Although they were known by another name in antiquity, Black Storks have made Latvia their home for thousands of years. They are much rarer than the White Storks, and a bit more mysterious, but studies undertaken in Latvia since 1993 have revealed a great deal about these magnificent birds.

Because of its rarity and special place in Latvia’s landscape, the Black Stork was named Bird of the Year for 2008. The Latvian Ornithological Society wanted to call attention to the stork’s diminishing habitat and the need to preserve and protect nesting places.  But I think it was to give our feathered friends another reason to celebrate Latvia’s 90th anniversary year.

#16   The Latvian Saga

Sometimes books not only tell history, they make it.

In 1959 Uldis ‘Ģērmanis wrote a history book about Latvia while he was living in Sweden. He was in Sweden because Latvia was under Soviet occupation, and he wrote ‘The Latvian Saga’ (Latviešu Tautas Piedzīvojumi)  for other Latvian refugees and their children, because the Soviets were trying to erase what they didn’t like about Latvia’s history.

While ‘The Latvian Saga’ became highly popular in the Latvian exile communities in Europe, North and South America, and Australia, it became even more popular in Latvia itself. Of course, the book was banned in Latvia, so having it and reading it was a big risk.  But that didn’t stop Western Latvians from smuggling in  copies.

I first read ‘The Latvian Saga’ in the 1980’s when I was working for the American Latvian Association in Washington, D.C. I love historical novels, and although it wasn’t a novel, it read like one. Through Ģērmanis, Latvia’s history came alive in a most captivating way. Almost every Latvian I knew had read it, and as my contacts with pro-independence activists expanded in the late 1980’s, I discovered that it was a ‘best seller’ in occupied Latvia as well. The KGB had failed miserably in keeping it off the shelves and out of the minds of the Latvians they were supposed to be watching.

It will take other historians to evaluate the impact Ģērmanis’ book had on Latvians around the world for 40 years. Ģērmanis said he wrote it to keep the flame of hope alive for independence. My vote is for those historians who believe Ģērmanis succeeded.

Ģērmanis’ original book covered Latvian history from the Ice Age until the Occupation. He died in 1997 and was never able to update the book. Last year, the publishing house Atena (www.atena.lv) released the first English translation of the book, and added new chapters, pictures and maps to reflect the continuing story of the Latvian saga. Ģērmanis had hoped that his book would someday reach a wider audience. It looks like he’s accomplished that goal as well.