Better Know A Holiday: St. John’s Day (And Eve)

Witch burning on St. John's Day
f_jensen_at_sdr.vinge, Flickr

AKA: Fete Nationale du Quebec (Canada), Kupala Day (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland), Festa Junina (Brazil), Foguera de San Xuan (Brazil), Jaanilaupaev (Estonia), Saint Jonas’ Festival (Lithuania), Jani (Latvia), Dia de Sao Joao (Portugal), Sant Joan (Spain), Johnsmas Foy (Scotland)

When? June 23 (Eve) and 24 (Day)

Public holiday in: Quebec, Canada; Turin, Italy; Catalonia, Spain; Estonia; Latvia; Lithuania; Porto, Portugal

Who died? St. John the Baptist. June 24 is his feast day.

What’s a feast day? Certain Christian traditions, notably Roman Catholic, keep track of which liturgies are given when by way of something called the General Roman Calendar, or Universal Calendar of Saints. Around 60 percent of the days of the Gregorian calendar year are associated with one or more saints, martyrs or holy figures. Even some relics have feast days. The feast day for St. Peter’s chair is on February 22. St. John the Baptist’s feast day falls on June 24.

Interestingly, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, lost his feast day back in 1969. A lot of people think St. Christopher was “desanctified,” or lost his sainthood, but in fact he was just stripped of his feast day because there’s no proof he actually existed.

Also interestingly, the patron saint of travelers is also the patron saint of bachelors and bookbinders, among other things.

You were saying about St. John the Baptist… Right.

So why June 24 of all days? That’s when John the Baptist is said to have been born. But more than that, Christianity has a long tradition of co-opting pagan rituals into Christian holidays. It’s a good way to gain converts. Pagan celebrations generally aligned with the turning of the seasons – equinoxes and solstices. And so Christians have major holidays around these dates: Easter near the vernal equinox, Christmas near the winter solstice and Michaelmas, which celebrates Lucifer being cast out from heaven, near the autumnal equinox.That June 24 is close to the summer solstice is certainly not a coincidence. Even if the summer solstice used to be celebrated on a different date (which it was when we used the Julian calendar), the church would have had a significant feast day to coincide with such a major celebration in the northern hemisphere.

Is that why it’s particularly popular in northern Europe? Bingo, mysterious person. St. John’s Day is celebrated all over the world, but the biggest celebrations occur in traditionally Christian nations well above the equator. In strongly Christian countries like Ecuador, where there is little change in sunrise and sunset throughout the year, it’s not such a big deal. But in Tallinn, Estonia, the sun sets at about 10:45 p.m. on the summer solstice and 3:30 p.m. on the winter solstice. St. John’s Day is just an extension of the reverence these places have for the summer solstice.

But isn’t it celebrated in Brazil? Yes, and other places where colonial powers instilled their traditions. Joao Fernandes, an early Portuguese explorer, was particularly devoted to the holiday and took John the Baptist as the patron saint of his exploits at Pernambuco, which is where St. John’s day is celebrated most in Brazil today. Fernandes had canons fire salutes around the camp all day long in celebration. This was in no small part because he shared the same name with the saint.

John the Baptist is also the patron saint of French Canada. And Turin, Italy and Porto, Portugal and numerous other places as well. That’s why Quebec celebrates June 24 as its national day.

Fete Nationale du Quebec
abdallahh, Flickr

Is it celebrated the same everywhere? Not quite, though most celebrations share one thing in common: fire. If there’s one thing everyone does on St. John’s Eve, it’s get rid of their old furniture and spare kindling in a giant bonfire. Or if you’re in Shetland, Scotland, where wood is in short supply, your excess heather and peat.

The city of Poznan in Poland had a unique take on the fire tradition in 2012, when they released 8,000 Chinese lanterns into the sky on St. John’s Night, setting a world record in the process.

Bonfires are more typical and are found everywhere, from prominent mountain peaks to valleys and plains. If you’re a traditional fisherman from Brittany, France…

I’m not. Well, if you were, you’d even light a fire on top of your ship’s mainmast to celebrate with your fishing fleet. Curiously, Breton fisherman are said to have a fear of tailors, another group that John the Baptist patronizes.

Elsewhere, the celebrations have unique local flavor. In Scandinavia, figures of witches are added to the flames because, as on Halloween, demons and evil spirits are said to be able to roam freely this day. Up until the 1700s, the French would incinerate cats by the sackful and chase a flaming cat through the streets, evil incarnate as they were (the cats, not the French… ostensibly).

Latvians eat a special cheese flavored with caraway seeds. Ukrainians eat eggs, dumplings and liquor for dinner. Ukrainians will also symbolically wash themselves with the morning dew after watching the sun rise, as do the Lithuanians.

Girls celebrating Jani in Latvia
Dace Kiršpile, Flickr

The Irish and others will set a wagon wheel on fire and roll it down a hill to symbolize the sun’s decline. With any luck, there’s nothing flammable at the bottom. Many cultures will dress in traditional costumes. Russians douse each other with water in one of the few actual nods to John the Baptist. The Swedes, celebrating their Midsommar festival a few days before St. John’s Day, raise a giant pole that is supposed to imbue the earth with fertile soil.

Sounds phallic. Indeed. In fact, most rites and rituals surrounding the summer solstice have to do with fertility. Many of the cultures celebrating St. John’s incorporate dancing and singing erotic songs into the celebrations, much to the consternation of the Church, I expect. It’s said to be a good time to predict who will be your future spouse, as well.

No need. Well, another common activity is jumping through the flames. It’s said to cleanse and purify the soul. Or you could wear a garland of flowers.

Not really for me, either. Can I just see some photos? Sure. Check out a slideshow of St. John’s Day (and Night) celebrations from around the world below.

Check out more holidays around the world here.

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5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]

VIDEO: The Wife Carrying Championships In Finland


Last week we reported on kiiking, an extreme swing set that’s popular in Estonia and surrounding countries. That area of the world seems to breed weird sports. Perhaps the weirdest is the increasingly popular sport of wife carrying.

Guys, it’s pretty simple: hoist your wife into the air and run a race. If you make it first and don’t drop her, you win. Oh, and you have to drink beer along the way. Now I can certainly understand wanting a cold beer after such a grueling contest, but having one in the middle of the race doesn’t sound like a good idea.

You have to be seriously fit. Huge guys with tiny wives still get laid out by this race. Serious contestants need to train hard and figure out the best position for the wife. The woman has a job to do too. As one wife said, “I just hang on and follow his rhythm.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge … say no more.

In this video by Journeyman Pictures, we get to see the World Wife Carrying Championships in Finland, which draws contestants from as far away as South Korea. Check out Journeyman Pictures’ YouTube Channel for some excellent documentaries.

The next World Wife Carrying Championships is in July, so get training!

Kiiking: Estonia’s Extreme Swing Set


Remember when we were kids playing on the swing set and we’d try to swing so high that we’d fly over the top bar and come down the other side? No, I never made it either. But in Estonia, they’ve taken a childhood dream and made it an extreme sport.

It’s called kiiking. Using a special swing with steel arms instead of chains, the kiiker stands on the swing and pumps back and forth until he or she gets enough momentum to make a full 360-degree turn. The best kiikers can go around several times. The longer the shaft of the swing, the harder it is, and according to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the record for kiiking is with a 7.02-meter (23-foot) swing used by Andrus Aasamäe of Estonia on August 21, 2004.

Kiiking has taken off in the Baltic states and in Scandinavia. Here we show a video of the Estonian army taking a little time off from defending the nation to practice kiiking.

Gifts From Estonia

gifts from Estonia
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]