For Estonians, Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of Võidupüha (Victory Day) during the War of Independence when Estonian forces defeated the German troops on 23 June 1919. After this battle against Estonia's traditional oppressors, Jaaniõhtu and the lighting of the traditional bonfires became linked with the ideals of independence and freedom.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and the jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Midsummer's eve is important for lovers. Among Estonian fairy tales and literature there is the tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year. Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions involving different flowers to see whom they are going to marry.
Former President Lennart Meri has provided another perspective on Jaanipäev in his work Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976). Meri suggests that the Jaanipäev traditions re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa. The meteorite's fall is also said to be the inspiration for Nordic and Baltic mythological stories about the sun falling onto the earth. This idea suggests that the present day bonfires and celebrations actually symbolise Estonia’s connection with its ancient past.
During their occupation of Estonia, the Soviets made no attempt to stop Jaanipäev celebrations. For Estonians, however, Jaanipäev remained tied to Estonia's victory during the War of Independence and the securing of a free and independent state. Jaanipäev, therefore, always reminded Estonians of their independence in the past, despite Soviet attempts to eliminate such ideas.
The tradition before the Soviet occupation, which has now been restored, was for a fire to be lit by the Estonian President on the morning of Võidupüha (June 23). From this fire, the flame of independence was carried across the country to light the many bonfires.
During the transition to the re-establishment of Estonia's de facto independence, Jaanipäev became an unofficial holiday, with many work places closing down. It once again became an official national holiday in 1992.
On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries.