Despite its beginnings as a Pagan festival where bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, Midsummer is still celebrated across Europe in countless ways. In Estonia, the northern hemisphere’s longest day is known as Jaanipäev (St John’s Day), giving locals an excuse to party for as long as the sun shines.
As the most northerly Baltic nation, summer sees Estonia drenched in daylight. In celebration of the season, two days of festivities begin on the night of Midsummer’s Eve (23 June) and continue into the small hours of Jaanipäev (24 June), when dusk is as dark as it gets, hence the name White Nights. Ever since its pagan origins, locals have been taking advantage of the season to revel in every sunshine-bathed minute.
The centuries have lent the White Nights celebrations ample time to become enshrouded in legendary beliefs still practised by locals today. Leaping over small bonfires is said to bring prosperity, while any woman looking for love may find it by picking nine species of flower in the Estonian countryside and placing them under her pillow. An ancient fairytale about two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk), who meet every Midsummer’s Day is retold each year, while it’s also worth keeping an eye out for a glow-worm – if you spot one, good fortune is coming your way. With Jaanipäev designated a national holiday, locals escape the city for the countryside and picnics in the wild. Midsummer evenings on the beach and warming chats by the bonfire are commonplace as the night (and morning) wears on. A few days later, the Seto Folk Festival (1–2 July) keeps the party going with two days of live folk music and hiking throughout Setomaa, one of Estonia’s wildest regions.
Estonia’s White Nights are just the beginning. It’s a country – and season – where you should linger for longer. Start the day right with a sunrise bog hike, a serene activity that is to Estonians what forest bathing is to the Japanese, or try a smoke sauna in the southern region of Võrumaa. With a coastline (3,800km) over five times greater than that of its land border (657km), many Estonians head for the water to cool down. Take a dip in the Baltic Sea or visit the many lighthouses that have safeguarded seafarers since the 16th century. It’s a little-known fact that Estonia has around 2,222 coastal islands to explore, with many just a short ferry hop from the mainland. Here you’ll find migratory birds and the orchid-rich wilds of Saaremaa as well as fascinating cultural differences, such as those of the matriarchal island of Kihnu or the generations-old fishing culture of Prangli, where life has changed little in centuries – just like Jaanipäev.
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