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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New Cruise Line Sets Sail In 2014 With Small, Luxury Ships

new cruise lineNew cruise lines are about as rare as new hotel chains; there is just not a lot of action on that topic. Like hotel chains, airlines and other travel-related companies, most cruise lines have been around for a long time too. Still, there are those who see a need in the marketplace that existing companies just can’t fill. Such is the feel of new Pearl Sea Cruises, which will set sail in 2014 cruising the Canadian Maritimes, New England and the Caribbean.

Starting out by building just one new ship, the 210-passenger Pearl Mist, Pearl Seas Cruises will operate various seven-, 10- and 11-night Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, Canadian Maritimes and New England cruises during their 2014 inaugural season.Currently undergoing final outfitting by Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Maryland, the Pearl Mist will be a Marshall Islands-flagged ship, first departing June 28, 2014, on an 11-night inaugural sailing from Baltimore to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On a total of 17 cruises planned for the 2014 season that runs through November, itineraries include:

  • Atlantic Coast– 11-night cruise from Baltimore to Halifax & reverse that showcases scenic areas long the U.S. East coast.
  • The Canadian Maritimes – 10-night cruise from Halifax to Québec focusing on Eastern Canada’s scenery, history and beauty.
  • St. Lawrence Seaway and Thousand Islands –seven-night cruise from Québec to Toronto & reverse taps international and old world charm via history, culture and scenic beauty.
  • Great Lakes and Georgian Bay – 10 and 11-night cruises from Toronto to Chicago & reverse features the largest freshwater ecosystem on Earth, sailing through four of the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay.
  • Southeast United States – 11-night cruise from Baltimore to Nassau, Bahamas – this trip down the East Coast stops in the various iconic cities of the south and ends in the Caribbean.

Bringing the current destination focus of small-ship cruising to North America on a new luxury ship, Pearl Seas Cruises brings the latest in comfort, safety, technology and communication. Not that cruising the waters of North America is something new; river cruise lines have been doing that for quite some time. Pearl Seas will sail the coast on new ships, in luxury.

Unique to Pearl Seas are oversized staterooms, all with a private balcony and most with sliding glass doors, a spacious dining room, and a variety of lounges. Combined with on-board enrichment and entertainment programs as well as exclusive shore excursions, Pearl Seas Cruises looks like a new cruise line that should do well here.

Hottest Destinations for Fall Foliage


[Photo credit - Pearl Seas Cruises]

Northern Lights Best Viewed At Sea, On A Yacht, French Style

northern lightsConsidering a trip to see the Northern Lights? This year may very well be the best time to go. 2013 is the height of the 11-year solar cycle. September and October offer peak activity. They can be seen in Alaska, Norway, Finland and Canada on a clear night. Better yet, try viewing on a ship at sea.

Common tips for viewing the Northern Lights say to go North, inside the Arctic circle, bring along a good guide and get away from light produced by cities and towns. That’s exactly what Compagnie du Ponant, a little French-flagged cruise line is doing this autumn for one of the best aurora borealis viewing opportunities possible.

Specializing in expedition sailings to the poles, Compagnie du Ponant sails small ships that feature custom technology designed to preserve fragile marine ecosystems.
northern lightsThe 15-day sailing begins in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on September 5, 2013 and ends in Quebec, Canada, whose old town is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Bringing along naturalists and experienced guides, passengers will get prepared for what they are about to see with background information and lectures about the origins, myths and mysticism on the way.A 10-year veteran of the Arctic, Compagnie du Ponant knows the best places to see the northern lights. Their luxury 264-passenger yacht Le Boreal will sail to the heart of the northernmost territory in Canada where passengers will view the polar lights from the bridge of the ship.

As if viewing the Northern Lights in near-absolute darkness was not enough, the voyage will visit a number of other trip-of-a-lifetime quality places like the village of Sisimiut in Greenland as well as the Inuit land of Nunavut, also a prime viewing location. There will be whale watching in the Baffin Sea and Saint Lawrence, white bears to see on Akpatok Island and a stop in Perce, known for its rock and Northern Gannets. To see all that, the state-of-the-art Le Boreal is complemented with a fleet of expedition Zodiac boats outfitted with satellite tracking.

On board, passengers will find five-star French service, including a choice of 132 staterooms or suites with sea views and private balconies, restaurants offering dining from casual to fine, a bar and lounge, and 24-hour in-room dining. There is also an outdoor pool with bar, panoramic terrace adjoining the indoor bar and lounge, library with Internet stations, medical center, Wi-Fi, in-room and on-board flat screen satellite TV with complimentary on-demand movies.

The all-inclusive experience is priced from $8,922 per person, based on double occupancy, flights included.

Want more on the Northern Lights? Check this video taken from the International Space Station:



[Photo credit - Flickr user Moyan_Brenn]

Summer Hotspot: Montreal, Quebec

Hungry for some culture this summer? Skip the jet lag, high exchange rates and long museum lines in Europe for one of North America’s most cosmopolitan and best warm-weather destinations: Montreal.

The charms that contribute to Montreal’s growing cultural reputation are already evident year-round, ranging from its cosmopolitan European-style cafes, a top-notch range of award-winning restaurants and a lively music scene. But summer is truly when Montreal comes out to shine, a time when May-August average temperatures hover in the 70′s and international-quality music festivals like MUTEK and Jazzfest draw partiers from around the globe. Design-conscious bargain hunters will find plenty to like in Montreal too. The city was named a UNESCO City of Design in 2006, and bursts at the seams with design-centric accommodations like Hotel Gault and fashion boutiques in the newly resurgent Old Montreal.

Those looking to add in a dose of the great outdoors won’t be disappointed either. With Montreal’s wildly successful Bixi bike-sharing program now in place at more than 5,000 locations city-wide, it’s easier than ever to pedal out for an exploration on the city’s 300+ miles of bike lanes and trails. For a more casual outdoor experience, stop by Montreal’s sprawling Mount Royal Park with a picnic lunch and just enjoy the warm weather.

Best of all, Montreal is still a relative bargain for budget-seekers. Compared to the Euro (currently $1.30:1), the Canadian Dollar still trades at a more wallet-friendly $1:1. Meaning you can spend those extra travel savings on a few more bottles of Quebec’s delicious La Fin du Monde Belgian-style brew, produced in nearby Chambly, Quebec.

[flickr image via madabandon]

10 best destinations to take a hot air balloon ride

hot air balloon When traveling, it’s always fun to explore a city from a new perspective. And, what better point of view than from the sky? These ten air balloon destinations will not only immerse you in beautiful scenery, but will also give you access to hidden treasures you may not have seen from the ground.

The Pyrenees, Spain

The Pyrenees is a mountain range that forms a divider between Spain and France. Crossing the Pyrenees in general is an unforgettable experience, and making this journey by hot air balloon will make it that more memorable. Watch as Catalonian buildings begin to resemble a Monopoloy game board. Lush greenery fills your view as you get the chance to see Santa Margarita, an enormous, well-preserved volcano crater, from an aerial point of view. In the winter, the snow capped mountains give the relaxing ride a magical ambiance.

One great tour group to go through for this ride is Vol de Coloms, especially since they serve Cava, a Spanish sparkling-wine, and sweet bread during the flight.Gatineau, Quebec

While the scenery in the region is picturesque, with 51 skyscrapers over 246 feet, serene rivers like the Ottawa River and the Gattineay River, and bountiful flora, the real reason to visit Gatineau is to ride a hot air balloon during the annual Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. Not only are there several dozen hot air balloons marking up the sky, but they come in an array of shapes, sizes, and characters, adding a fun element to the scene. Climb into a space shuttle, a giant birthday cake, or a sad-faced court jester as the thousands of attendees, amusement park rides, craft stalls, and car show automobiles become ants in the landscape. Click here for more information.

turkey hot air balloons Cappadocia, Turkey

If you want to ride a hot air balloon in a place with truly unique landscape, then Cappadocia in Turkey is the perfect spot. As you float high up into the clouds you will be looking down upon sandy desert and pointy limestone rock mountains that almost look like something out of a surreal fairytale. A natural brown landscape textured with steep valleys and red canyons and dotted with green olive groves will make you feel like you’ve left planet Earth (which, I guess, you have). Click here for more information.

Temecula Valley, California

Where better to vacation that wine country? Immersed in ripening grape vines and neatly plotted fields, the feeling is a mixture of rural living and luxury, especially since you know you will be tasting flavorful reds and whites during your trip. Exploring a wine region from the air is just as fun, if not more, as the you get to see the vineyards and fields from a bird’s-eye view. In Temecula Valley, your view of rolling hills will also be complemented by the beautiful Lake Skinner and a backdrop of mountains. Moreover, the annual Balloon and Wine Festival is held in this region, which mixes the joy of wine with the adventure of flying. Click here for more information.

colorado air ballooning Rocky Mountains, Colorado

The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range that stretches for over 3,000 miles in western North America. With dramatic peaks and valleys that have been sculpted into the mountains, this is a destination favorite for travelers. But while many people explore the Rockies by foot, why not traverse them in a unique way, like hot air ballooning? Watch as Mount Elbert in Colorado, the highest peak in the mountain range, gets smaller and smaller, until it fades into a scene that looks like a real life Bob Ross masterpiece. If you’re in the mood for an event, Colorado Springs hosts their Colorado Balloon Classic every Labor Day weekend. Concession stands, entertainment, contests, and, best of all, dozens of colorful hot air balloons, are all part of the fun. Click here for more informaton.

The Outback, Australia

Your sense of nature will really be ignited with a hot air balloon ride through the Outback of Australia. Flying in the sky you will look down on remote desert featuring only a few bush paths. Famous rock formation landmarks such as Ayers Rock and Mount Olga can be seen from one vantage point along with sparkling springs, waterholes, and rock caves. It is a very organic and undisturbed landscape to take in, and a must-see for hot air balloon enthusiasts. Click here for more information.

angkor wat Angkor War, Cambodia

Located less than a mile west of Angkor Wat, there is the chance to go up in a hot air balloon that will allow you to see the many religious landmarks of Cambodia, such as the famous Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and the myriad temples surrounding the areas of Siem Reap and the Barays. The basket is in the shape of a donut, giving access to convenient 360 degree views. While floating 656 feet in the air, try to pick out the different temples by name, thinking to yourself how lucky you are to not have to fight off the hourdes of tourists to get a cultural lesson in local religion. No need to be nervous, either, as this is one of the less frightening rides due to the fact that the balloon is always tied down to the ground below, and it only lasts about fifteen minutes.

San Carlos, Costa Rica

Costa Rica has quite a diverse landscape, and taking a hot air balloon ride over the country while floating over rainforests, volcanos, and mountain villages can help you take it all in. Riders will also interact with nature, skimming the monkey-inhabited treetops and dipping down into flowing rivers. When there is a break in the clouds, a clear view of Arenal Volcano, which is still active, can be seen. Click here for more information.

swiss alpsChâteau d’Oex, Switzerland

The Swiss Alps is one of those places that cannot be described with words or even understood through pictures, but must be experienced first hand to really understand its beauty. Float through the air while admiring the picturesque mountains, some bright with green, some sparkling and snow capped, as well as views of Mont-Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Lake Geneva. The best time to visit is the last week in January, when the town holds their annual International Hot Air Balloon Week. Click here for more information.

Maasai Mara, Kenya

Riding a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara is not only a unique experience because of the landscape, which encompasses woodlands, grasslands, rivers, open plains, rivers, and a dramatic plateau, but also because of the game viewing. The Maasai Mara National Reserve located in southwestern Kenya, is home to one of the greatest events in the world, the Great Migration. From July through October, millions of gazelles, zebras, and wildebeests travel through Maasai Mara, making this a prime time to take a hot air balloon ride in the region. Think of the ride as a hot air balloon safari. Click here for more information.