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]

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]

A Medieval Monastery In Estonia

Estonia
Estonia had an interesting time in the Middle Ages. Along with the other Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, they were the last bastion of paganism in a continent that had become entirely Christian.

Various Christian kingdoms decided this was a good excuse for conquest and launched the Northern Crusades. From 1208 to 1224, the Germans, Danes, and Swedes attacked Estonia and eventually conquered it.

Once the knights had finished their work, it was time for the clergy to step in. Prominent among these were the Cistercians, one of the most powerful monastic orders of their time. In 1220 they were rewarded with lands at Padise near the important port of Tallinn. They built a small stone chapel there and began expanding it into a large fortified monastery in 1317.

In 1343 the Estonians rose up against their occupiers and burned down Padise Monastery, killing 28 monks. The uprising was crushed and the Cistercians rebuilt the monastery better and stronger than before. It continued being a monastery until 1558, when it became a fortress protecting the landward approach to Tallinn. The building changed hands several times during the region’s many wars. It was besieged twice, the siege in 1580 lasting 13 weeks, during which the defenders (Russians at that moment) got hammered with Swedish artillery and eventually were starved into submission.

%Gallery-180500%In 1622, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden gave the monastery and lands to Thomas Ramm, Burgermeister of Riga, in exchange for Ramm giving up the city to the king’s army. I suppose the Ramm family wasn’t very welcome in Riga after that.

I visited on a quiet, gloomy winter afternoon as part of a day trip with Tallinn Traveller Tours, after a morning spent chasing the Estonian Army. Mart, my guide, led me up some slick icy steps to the top of the tower to look out over the snowy countryside. Somehow I managed not to slip and fall to my death. Writing for you people always seems to send me up unsafe heights. At least it wasn’t as bad as the minaret in Samarra.

After we made it down safely, Mart took me around the castle grounds.

“Imagine being a kid here,” he said. “We all played like we were knights in castles, but the kids around here get the real thing.”

Lots of Estonian kids are lucky that way. Forts, manor houses, and monasteries abound in the Estonian countryside. This area was fought over for centuries yet the Estonians managed to keep their distinct language and national character. Eventually they managed to get independence too.

We entered the great hall, once used for meals and services, and admired the fine arches and carved columns. From there we explored the dark, chilly cellar, where a centuries-old oven was still black from baking bread for the monks.

“Look at this,” Mart said, shining is mobile phone light on the wall.

A mosquito was perched on the cold stone.

“I’m surprised it’s still alive,” I said.

“I should kill it,” Mart said. “I hate those things. They swarm around you all summer.”

He left it alone. I was glad. I’ve always respected survivors.

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

Coming Up Next: Gifts from Estonia!

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Chasing The Estonian Army – And Finding A Different One

Estonian Army
Machine gun fire thudded through the snowy woods. Mart looked up from the missile shelter we were inspecting; an excited look appeared on his face.

“It came from that way, let’s go!”

He started running through snow up to his calves. I followed. The snow immediately trickled down the tops of my hiking boots, melted and gave my feet a cold bath. I kept running. At least I wasn’t wearing regular shoes like Mart.

We heard another burst from the machine gun. It sounded closer and a bit to the left. We changed course.

“Maybe it’s the APC that left those tracks we saw on the road,” Mart said.

I hoped so. I’ve ridden on an APC but never seen one in action.

Mart was my guide from Tallinn Traveller Tours. He was supposed to be showing me the west coast of Estonia and the old Soviet military town of Paldiski. Instead, we’d been chasing scattered gunfire through some lonely winter woods for the past hour. Mart is an Estonian college kid half my age, but we share something in common – our natural reaction to gunfire is to run towards it instead of away from it.

Not that we really had anything to fear. We were chasing the Estonian Army on their winter maneuvers, and they didn’t usually use live ammo. Technically they could arrest us if we got in the way, but chances are all they’d do was tell us to beat it. That’s what the Bulgarian Army did when I pulled the same stunt with them.

%Gallery-180122%The snow hampered our movements and we had to weave our way through the half-buried remains of abandoned Soviet military installations. The missile shelter we’d been inspecting was one of many in the area, basically a big tubular garage from which a short-range nuclear missile could be wheeled out and prepared for launch. Mart says that the Soviets built far more than they needed and moved the missiles around so NATO would never know where they were.

Eventually we gave up crunching through the snow and got back in the car. We drove around for a time and saw more tracks, but never caught up with the Estonian Army. Too bad. Back in 1918-20, the previous Estonian army managed to beat the Bolsheviks and establish Estonian independence. Estonia got swamped in World War II but became independent again in 1991. Since then they’ve joined NATO and served in Afghanistan. They currently have 150 troops there making them a small country punching way above its weight.

While the Estonian Army was nowhere to be found, detritus from the Soviet army was everywhere. One of the most disturbing stood just outside of Paldiski. This town was used by the Soviet Navy for nuclear submarine training. In one building they had an entire mockup of a sub for the cadets to work with.

In another building – a grim looking, windowless place that we studied from outside a chain-link fence – were two nuclear submarine reactors. The first was installed in 1964 and the second in 1982. The reactors were shut down in 1989 but they’re still in there. We didn’t see any guards, but I bet they were watching us through a hidden camera somewhere.

This made me think of all the military trash spread across the planet. In an earlier post, I talked about how my kid loves using Google Maps and discovered the remote Johnston Atoll. He’s obsessed with going there. I’m not. The United States used it for aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, and later as a chemical weapons dump. A landfill on the atoll contained plutonium dust, sarin nerve gas, Agent Orange and various other nasties. I’m not taking my son there anytime soon. I want my grandkids to have ten fingers.

I wonder how many places like this exist in the former Soviet territories, places that Moscow never bothered to mention as the Soviet Union fell apart. I also wonder about the planet’s carrying capacity for heaps of radioactive and toxic waste.

Not all trash from the Cold War is harming the planet. Some of it has been recycled to better uses. After giving up on the Estonian Army, Mart drove me down a country lane for a surprise. Sitting on some private property was an old Antonov 12 cargo plane. Introduced in 1959, these planes did the heavy lifting for the Red Army for many years. This particular one was left behind when the last Russian troops left Estonia in 1994.

Somehow a local guy was able to buy it. He’s an avid model airplane hobbyist and he and his friends turned it into their clubhouse – a boy’s dream come true. We were greeted by the owner, a quiet man whose entire conversation with me consisted of “hello,” followed by half an hour’s silence as Mart and I explored his plane, and ended with “goodbye.”

The Antonov is in remarkably good shape. The cargo area is stuffed with model planes, a worktable and files of modeling magazines. The cockpit is still as it was. I got in the pilot’s seat and Mart acted as copilot as we fiddled with the switches, talked about what it would be like to fly this thing and basically acted like two overgrown kids with a wonderful toy. After that we headed to the rear of the plane where I squeezed into the gunner’s turret. My only disappointment was that the machine gun had been removed. I wonder where it ended up.

Mart also took me to see more peaceful sights such as the frozen waterfall pictured below and a stretch of coastline where swans fished in the chilly water.

“They’re taking a risk,” he said. “Usually they migrate away from the sea in winter because it freezes and they can’t fish. They’ve stayed this year because it’s so mild. But if it freezes, they won’t be able to eat.”

We talked about Estonia’s natural beauty for a time, and visited an old lighthouse that was on the verge of teetering into the sea because of erosion. Time and again, our mutual enthusiasm brought the conversation back to the Cold War. The Soviets didn’t just leave behind material and hazardous waste; they left behind people too. During the old days the central government tried to “Russify” outlying areas by sending Russians to live there. About a quarter of Estonia’s population speaks Russian as their native language.

These folks got caught in the middle during the independence movement in the 1990s. During the transition people were asked to get an unofficial Estonian identity card – unofficial because Estonia wasn’t a country yet. Many Russians didn’t, either because of loyalty to the homeland or fear that Estonia wouldn’t become a nation and anyone with a card would get in trouble.

When independence became official, the identity cards were used to establish citizenship. Many Russians in the nation were left without a state. They got “gray passports” that designate them as resident aliens. They don’t get to vote in national elections, hold government jobs, or enjoy many advantages of the European Union. Now the public schools are switching to teaching mostly in Estonian. Sounds like a good way to create a disaffected underclass.

Reactions from Estonians vary. Mart is sympathetic. Others are less so. One Estonian woman said of the Russians in her country, “We hate them.” Steps have been taken to give more Russian Estonians their citizenship, but official figures still show about 8 percent of the national population to lack citizenship.

It’s a messy business and while I see the problem, I don’t see an easy answer. What is surprising about the collapse of the Soviet Union is that many areas managed to get through it relatively unscathed. Back in the early 1990s, a guy I know in college who everyone called “Stalin” because of his hardcore Communism predicted that, “These countries will be lucky if they survive with half their populations.” At the time I thought he might be right.

For Estonia at least, they survived with a lingering social problem, some dodgy nuclear sites and one really, really cool clubhouse. If only every former Soviet republic had been so lucky.

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

Coming up next: A Medieval Abbey In Estonia!

[Top photo by Mart the Psychotic Yet Well-Informed Tour Guide. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]

Estonian Army