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Once a Year, Quiet Islanders Dance All Night

Song and dance festivals are usually held in late June when the days are longest in the northern Baltic region. This is also when the most important annual holiday, about June 21, marks the end of spring sowing and the warmth of summer in this largely agricultural country.

Known in Estonia as Jannipaev or St. John's Day, this is actually a summer-solstice festival, which long predates Christianity and features all-night bonfires around which people dance in a kind of purification ritual.

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This tradition is strongest on an island off the Estonian coast known as Kihnu. It has a population of just 580 scattered about in farmsteads ("the whole place is really just one village," according to more than one resident), and it is one of a few places in Estonia where women still wear traditional clothing year round.

This includes long red-striped skirts, starched white blouses, and head kerchiefs. When a woman is in mourning, the skirt has blue and black stripes.

In a country that is still largely agricultural, Kihnu is about as rural as it gets. It is a quiet place, where narrow dirt roads lead past old-style farmsteads. The island has just one of everything: one white church, one school, one community center, one general store, and one old lighthouse on its southern tip.

Summers bring an influx of "mainlanders," creating a small tourist trade that provides income to locals. One couple rents out rooms on their farm in a 19th-century building, which originally housed farmhands. And tour groups occasionally drive by, seated in the back of one of the few open trucks on the island; there are no buses.

But most islanders make their living from fishing. The men head out to sea each morning from the only port at the northern end. People also tend gardens in their family compounds.

"This is life as it was led in the rest of Estonia in earlier times," says Katrin Kumpan, who helps run the community center. She says that most locals do not even identify themselves as being from Estonia; rather, they are from Kihnu.

Throughout the night on June 23 this year, islanders and some outsiders gathered around an old wooden boat that was set on fire to mark the festival. Several couples danced to the tune of an accordion, as the flames grew larger and gradually consumed the old fishing vessel.

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Groups of children also played near the fire as older women sat quietly and watched. "This is a celebration of life, at the time of year when our spirits are highest," said Vello Oad, a fisherman playing the accordion.

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