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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Eurovision 2013: All Of Europe Under One Roof

eurovision
Alex Robertson Textor

Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.

Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.

Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.

For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.

All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.

So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.

In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.

For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.

A Review Of The Best American Travel Writing 2012

best american travel writing 2012Tijuana. Chernobyl. Sicily’s mafioso strongholds. Cairo’s Garbage City. The contaminated holy waters of Varanasi, India. Bosnia. Norway’s frozen tundra. These might not be the places you’d like to visit on your next holiday, but you will want to read about them in the latest edition of “The Best American Travel Writing(2012), which came out on October 3.

I’ve been an avid reader of this series, which is edited by Jason Wilson, the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, Obscure, and Overrated in Spirits,” since it debuted in 2000. Each year, there are stories that resonate with me and others that make me wonder how they qualified for such a prestigious anthology. Everyone has their own taste, and I for one, would have featured Jeffrey Tayler’s essay in “World Hum” about the travel memories conjured from an old address book, Gadling contributor David Farley’s fascinating account of his time in Minsk, or any number of other stories that appeared here on Gadling over a few of the selections in this year’s collection.And longtime readers of this series can’t help but notice how it seems to get slimmer and slimmer each year. This year’s book weighs in at just 222 pages, the leanest ever, while most of the previous editions of this series tipped the scales in the 300-400 page range. Bigger isn’t always better, and I don’t know if the trend is a sad commentary on the genre or if the publisher is simply trying to keep the price from rising above the current $14.95, but I hope the collection bulks back up in the future.

But BATW is always worth a read and this year’s edition, edited by the author, William T. Vollmann, has a host of standout pieces. The best travel stories are almost always about the kind of places mentioned in the outset of this post – unlikely tourist destinations – and BATW 2012 underscores that reality. Here’s a brief rundown of my favorite pieces from this year’s volume.

chernobylChernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden,” by Henry Shukman, Outside

Tourists have been permitted to visit Northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since January 2011, but I still think Henry Shukman is nuts. In the aftermath of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, 2 towns and 91 villages around the site were evacuated and some 600,000 workers engaged in a massive cleanup operation that left many stricken with cancer and other ailments. According to Shukman, some 2.7 million people around the region were affected, but these days, the 1,660 square foot exclusion zone is a “big untamed forest” where wildlife is making a comeback.

Shukman’s research is impressive and he tells a great story, but the highlight for me was his willingness to drink samogon, a local moonshine produced in the exclusion zone. I wouldn’t have done it, but I certainly enjoyed living through his experience.


zabaleen garbage collectors in cairoGarbage City,” by Elliott D. Woods, The Virginia Quarterly Review

I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time in the garbage dumps of Cairo, but Woods’ story about the city’s zabaleen- Coptic Christian recycling entrepreneurs was surprisingly fascinating. According to Woods, the zabaleen turn 80% of what they collect into postwaste, salable materials. Woods’ account of how the zabaleen have survived despite the entrance of multinational waste management firms is a must read.

“My Days with the Anti-Mafia,” by Thomas Swick, The Missouri Review

I have deep roots in Sicily and have traveled all over the island, but I’d never heard of Addiopizzo, an organization that supports businesses which refused to pay protection money (pizzo), until I read Swick’s informative and beautifully written story. Swick takes us to Zen 2, Palermo’s worst slum and introduces us to brave Sicilians who are standing up the mafia, despite the risks.


The Reckoning,” by Kenan Trebincevic, The New York Times Magazine

This essay from a Bosnian refugee who returned home to confront a traitorous neighbor is one of the book’s shortest but most compelling pieces.

The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame,” Bryan Curtis, Grantland

What do you want from Tijuana my friends? You want to meet a girl? As soon as I read that lead, I knew I was going to like this story, and it was actually even better than I bargained for. Curtis’s account of his trip to the now gringo-free T.J. in search of an obscure sports museum is hilarious.

But it’s also full of perceptive observations about how the U.S. media portrays all of Mexico as a “bloody slaughterhouse” rather than dissecting the crime problem as the “complicated, regionalized” issue that it is. Americans have mostly abandoned T.J. but Curtis concludes that the violence that scared thrill seekers off may now be “mostly a creation of the American mind.”

ganges varanasiMaximum India,” by Pico Iyer, Condé Naste Traveler

India’s holy city of Varanasi, Pico Iyer tells us, is like a “five-thousand year old man who may have put on a fcuk shirt and acquired a Nokia but still takes the shirt off each morning to bathe in polluted waters and uses his new cell phone to download Vedic chants.” Well then, just how polluted are those holy waters?

They “flow past thirty sewers, with the result that the brownish stuff the devout are drinking and bathing in contains three thousand times the maximum level of fecal coliform bacteria considered safe by the World Health Organization.” Iyer, who lives a reclusive, unconnected lifestyle in Japan, knows how to tell a story and this is a characteristically rich, insightful piece from one of the world’s great travel writers.


Amundsen Schlepped Here,” by Mark Jenkins, Outside

Jenkins has made a career out of embarking on trips that sound dreadful but are great fun to read about, and this account of his 100-mile cross-country skiing adventure across Hardangervidda National Park in Norway with his brother is no exception. Jenkins is the rare writer with the fortitude to persevere against winds and cold that kept them to a pace that, at one point, brought them just 14 miles down the path after seven hours of grueling exertion. The story also contains some thought-provoking insights into the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole in 1911.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Flickr users Tim Suess Shackdwellers Intl and JPereira]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Europe’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Women And Other Reasons To Love Bulgaria

hot bulgarian womenI had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.

But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.

A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
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Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)

sexy bulgarian womanBut are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.

After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.

Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.

bansko bulgarian gypsy bandBut the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.

Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)

Photos Of Cool Cliff Castles

Nobody minds seeing photos of dreamy castles, especially if the photos are of cool cliff castles. Towering over steep slated valleys and crashing waves, Woman’s Day has a great roundup of these kinds of castles on their website here. Featuring castles in Ukraine, Italy, Spain, Tibet, Yemen, USA and India, these photos are the thread with which fantasies are sewn. Knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, drawbridges and dragons, anyone? I’m pretty sure these castles were the backdrops behind the stories surrounding all of those things. For that, these are places worth visiting. And you know what they (by ‘they’, I mean ‘me’) say: if you can’t visit, look at photos online.

Visit Bojnice Castle in Slovakia