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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Free Art: Exploring The Graffiti Of Barcelona

You could go to Barcelona and see Sagrada Familia, and the contemporary art museum and all of the Gaudi houses, but if you head to the capital of Catalonia and don’t take some time to simply peruse the streets and check out the graffiti, you’ll miss out on some of the best art and creative inspiration that the city has to offer.

I, for one, am not usually a fan of graffiti, but done well, it’s a form of public art. In fact, graffiti in Barcelona is as ubiquitous as spots to drink an outdoor cortado. Walking one day I noticed a huge art supply store, their main window display a collection of cans of spray paint.

Barcelona graffiti is funky, recognizable and oozing with a creative spirit that you are hard pressed to find anywhere else – well, except maybe Berlin. Make your way down any alleyway and it’s almost like you’re in a modern art gallery; plus, I don’t need to remind you that it’s free. Here, art is democratized, and you can see it on almost every street if you just look.

The best time to go graffiti scouting is outside of business hours, when stores have their shutters – common canvases on the Bracelona graffiti scene – pulled down. Granted, not everyone is a fan; a couple of years ago the city cracked down on businesses that were commissioning graffiti artists to paint on their shutters. Eventually, those works were even deemed illegal, and the scene moved to the suburbs. But there’s plenty of good graffiti to be found all around, and if you’re a fan of the independent art scene, and like a different way to get a feel for a city, plan for an afternoon or two of wandering the streets and seeing what works you can track down.

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[Photo Credit: Anna Brones]

Medieval pilgrims journeyed deep into Africa, archaeologists discover

medieval
The Kingdom of Makuria is the quintessential forgotten civilization. Very few people have even heard of it, yet it ruled southern Sudan for hundreds of years and was one of the few kingdoms to defeat the Arabs during their initial expansion in the 7th century AD. Makuria was a Christian kingdom, born out of the collapse of the earlier Christian kingdom of Axum. Makuria survived as a bulwark of Christianity in medieval Africa until it finally collapsed in 1312.

Now excavations of some of its churches at Banganarti and Selib have revealed that this kingdom was a center of pilgrimage, attracting people from as far away as Catalonia, in modern Spain. The 2,300 mile journey from Spain to southern Sudan is a long one even today, but imagine when it had to be done on horseback, walking, and boats powered only by sails and oars. Yet an inscription records that one Catalan named Benesec made the journey almost a thousand years ago, probably to pray for a cure to an illness. “Benesec” was a popular Catalan name in the 13th and 14th centuries.

MedievalAnother inscription with an accompanying painting shows a Muslim man, Deif Ali, making a pilgrimage to the church to pray for a cure to his blindness. This isn’t as unusual as it might sound. In regions where religions mingle, some people will go to holy places of the other religion. When I covered the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela for Reuters back in 2001, I met Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs all coming to be a part of the religious festival.

Makurian artists produced some amazing religious frescoes, like this image of the birth of Jesus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, and this closeup of St. Anne, also courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Both come from the cathedral of Faras, an important Makurian city.

The churches are in southern Sudan, not the new Republic of South Sudan. The nation of Sudan (the northern one) has many sites of archaeological and historical interest and is a popular destination for adventure travel.

Photo of the day – monastery in the mountains

Photo of the day

It’s appropriate that this cable car in Montserrat, Spain leads to a monastery, because I’d be praying the whole ride that we made it safely. Perhaps other visitors are less height-adverse because this is one of the most important religious sites in Spain, with many people making the trek each year up the mountain to pray at the sanctuary. It’s not just for pilgrims: Santa Maria de Montserrat is home to one of the oldest printing presses in the world, a museum with such art biggies as Picasso and Dali, and a nature park with some stunning views of Catalonia. Want to visit? It’s about an hour from Barcelona, more visiting details here. Thanks to Flickr user othernel for making the climb.

Want to share your favorite travel photos with us? Add them to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may just use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Human castles may make UNESCO World Heritage list

You gotta love Spain. Not only do they like having giant tomato fights and getting chased through the streets by bulls, but they build giant castles out of people.

That’s right. Not content with having some of the best castles in Europe, the Spaniards like constructing living towers up to ten people high. Called a castell, the tradition originated in the region of Catalonia in the 18th century.

A bunch of strong, big castellars make up the pinya (base) and support their teammates as they create level upon level with progressively fewer (and lighter) people. Once a level is complete, the people who make up the next one climb up the backs of the others and take their place. Then the top person, called an enxaneta (rider) climbs all the way to the very top and, supported by only two people, raises a hand with four fingers up to symbolize the Catalan flag. The enxaneta and the very top levels are often made up of children to lighten the load on the bottom levels. Then the castell disassembles itself from the top down by each level climbing back to the ground. Only when everyone is safely back on the ground is the castell considered a success.

It’s an unusual tradition and now the castellars are applying to get their art on UNESCO’s list of “intangible world heritage”. The list includes examples of rare cultural practices that are relatively unknown and unpracticed outside a certain region. Check out the website for more bizarre and amazing practices around the world.