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

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.

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.

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.


Belarus internet ban targets foreign websites

A new internet ban in the former Soviet country Belarus will make the usage or browsing of many foreign websites illegal and punishable by a fine of up to $125. The Library of Congress reports that all Belarusian companies and entrepreneurs will be required to use only locally-hosted websites for conducting business, sales, or exchanging emails. Additionally, e-commerce websites without a local presence will be banned from providing goods or services to anyone in Belarus, meaning that websites like Amazon will not be allowed to sell to Belarusians. Internet cafe owners are required to report any illegal browsing to the authorities for prosecution. Additionally, websites deemed “extremist” or “pornographic” will be banned, bringing to mind a scene from the TV series Scrubs when Dr. Cox says “I’m fairly sure if they took porn off the Internet, there’d only be one website left, and it’d be called ‘Bring Back the Porn’.”

What’s unclear about the law is how it would apply to non-commerce sites like blogs or news sites, or any other website without the .by extension. How about travel booking engines or content for citizens to travel abroad? It’s also unclear how it would affect non-Belarusians doing business in the country, such as Gadling’s blogger Alex Robertson Textor, who recently reported from Minsk. Will this very website become illegal to read in Belarus? We hope not, for any Belarusian readers, and for the sake of internet freedom for all.

Photo courtesy Flickr user decafeined from a protest earlier this year in Istanbul against pending internet censorship in Turkey.

Get to know Belarus through the art of motion timelapse

This timelapse video, One Day in Life, was created by professional photographer and Minsk native, Artem Sergeevich. It shows the country of Belarus in a way that will put any negative eastern Europe stereotypes out of your head and have you booking a one-way plane ticket there. Vibrant colors wash over a mix of countrysides and cityscapes, making the factories look just as beautiful and exciting as the lakes and fountains. It isn’t easy to capture images like these, and Sergeevich used a range of different cameras, some of which included a Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 60D, Tokina 11-16mm, and a Sigma 14mm, among others.
To see more videos by Artem Sergeevich, click here.

Minsk in late summer

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Minsk is not for everyone. It is, very likely, not for most. But for some visitors, it’s a terribly interesting place. And Minsk in late summer, with just a hint of autumn in the air, is a very pleasant place to spend some time.

Why is Minsk not for everyone? Hassle, mostly. Your average tourist doesn’t want to put that much effort into researching his or her travels ahead of time. Shelling out for visas in advance and encountering red tape along the way are not part of this agenda, which is about ticking various boxes without risking time or energy en route: beach, monument, drinking, history, shopping. But for others (the generally intrepid; aficionados of all things post-Soviet; hearty pork dinner lovers; and anyone with a more geopolitically-driven interest in contemporary European life) Minsk is an enthralling place to visit.

Minsk has many appeals. It’s inarguably interesting to contemplate the old Soviet apparatus in any number of ways. Walk, for example, into a Metro station to witness an enormous hammer and sickle statue next to a screen of Rihanna sauntering down a street in Jamaica in her “Man Down” video. Most people waiting for their trains keep to themselves or talk quietly. Rihanna may provide the soundtrack but nobody appears to be particularly interested in paying attention.

There’s a lot of triumphant architecture as well. There are broad avenues like Nyezhavisymosty Avenue, which a Belarusian-born friend of a friend urged me to follow from the National Library to Victory Square. (And I did. Great idea.) There is the National Library itself, once described by a fellow Gadling writer as the Death Star of libraries. There is the Architecture Faculty at Belarusian National Technical University (see above), a beautiful example of Soviet modernism that dates to 1983. Throughout, there is a calm and quiet in Minsk. Traffic is modest and the wide sidewalks along these avenues are often quite empty.

It’s well and good that there are such triumphant modern buildings to contemplate. For a city essentially destroyed during the Second World War, Minsk is not a place for steeping in physical history. That said, there is one centrally-located 17th-century church that should be visited, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, which dates to 1611. The most concentrated central spot for taking in the past is a recreation. Created in the 1980s, the neighborhood of Traiyetskoye (Trinity) serves as Minsk’s Old Town. It’s pleasant and worth a stroll, though to my mind Minsk’s excitement lies in its modernity.And Minsk is cheap. Really, really cheap, at least once you’ve gotten your hotel bill paid. A ride on the quiet and clean Metro costs 17 cents. When it came time for a souvenir run, the big department stores GUM and TSUM delivered. Hyperactive local department stores both, the former is beautifully appointed and was buzzing with back-to-school energy two weeks ago. The inventory for sale was largely, possibly entirely, manufactured in Belarus. True bargains were everywhere. I bought folklorish placemats (under $10 for four), notebooks (several varieties, starting at six cents [!] a pop); a striped tank-top ($2.20); and a lily-of-the-valley-scented bar of soap (36 cents). My souvenirs topped out at around $14, which is about two-fifths of the price of a candle at a posh home furnishings shop in London.

For the record, hotels aren’t exactly murder on the wallet. My travel companion wanted air-conditioning, which seemed unnecessary in advance but turned out to be very good to have. We paid $118 per night for our air-conditioned room at the upscale Hotel Yubilenaya through Belintourist, a rate that included breakfast. Hotel Yubilenaya was decent in every way, and its clientele was provocatively broad: local tourists, a Belarusian sports team (tennis?), some Iranian engineers on holiday, one of whom interrupted his Facebooking marathon to discuss the beauty of Belarusian ladies with my travel companion, and a big group of South African doctors and their spouses.

Minsk is a fascinating place. It has an immediate familiarity to anyone who spent time on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Yet despite bolts of familiarity, it remains deeply enigmatic to visitors, no doubt exponentially so for those, like me, who do not speak Russian. I’d return to Minsk on assignment in a heartbeat, though on a future visit to Belarus I’d want to include Grodno and Pripyatsky National Park on my itinerary as well.

Anyone traveling to Belarus should purchase the excellent Bradt guide to Belarus, the second edition of which was published in February. Nigel Roberts, the guide’s author, writes with a palpable affection for the people and customs of Belarus.

Getting to Minsk

Getting to Minsk seemed like a complicated process from the very beginning. The Belarusian entrance requirements were one thing; as it turned out, there were delays, unexpected developments, and last-minute machinations on top of the basic visa application process.

Prospective US visitors need to do several things before visiting Belarus: obtain an invitation from a recognized travel agency, complete the visa application form, obtain a visa, and purchase health insurance. (For anyone arriving by air, the health insurance purchase can be taken care of at the airport upon arrival.) Easy peasy, right?

My first and most straight-forward obligation was to secure an invitation from one of ten approved Belarusian travel agencies before showing up at the embassy here in London to apply for my tourist visa. I sent out a general inquiry via Twitter. Gadling’s own David Farley responded, recommending Belintourist as efficient and pleasant. Belintourist certainly delivered. Their English-speaking agents answered the phone and responded to emails in short order. They were also very patient as my travel companion and I tossed several itinerary changes their way during the course of planning. In addition to furnishing us with our official invitation, Belintourist booked our hotel.

Then there was the visa itself, priced at a not insignificant $140 (£90 from Belarus’ London embassy) for five-day turnaround and almost twice that for next-day service. I showed up at the embassy in London and submitted a completed visa application form and my letter of invitation from Belintourist.

In addition, I had to purchase the requisite health insurance. As mentioned above, anyone entering the country by air can purchase health insurance at the Minsk Airport on arrival. Since I planned to arrive via train, however, my health insurance had to be bought in advance. Belintourist took care of this requirement for me, and emailed me a PDF of a photocopy of the receipt, which I printed and included in my travel folder.

Everything was in order. And then I ran into a snag. The consul at the Belarusian embassy in London did a spot of search engine research and discovered that I was a travel writer, producing a printout of an old copied-and-pasted writer’s bio as evidence. He insisted that I obtain press accreditation before he would issue me a visa. It was a quick process, he assured me, and gave me contact information for Belarus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press accreditation office.I sent a dozen emails over the course of several days to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk. I was told that an application form and a letter of request from Gadling’s editor would suffice. I emailed the form and had Grant Martin email the letter of request. Then came an email informing me that this would not do, that the letter of request would have to be on letterhead and would have to include Grant’s signature.

A panicked set of emails to my esteemed editor followed. Grant took care of the matter quickly and without complaint. Three days before I was due to leave, the Ministry emailed me to tell me that my press accreditation had been processed and that I would need to pick it up in Minsk the following week. And a few hours later the London consul telephoned with the news that my visa had been granted. The consul was terribly polite. He even gave me his business card and suggested that I follow up after my return with any questions.

I’d never been asked to do so much before being granted a visa, not by a long shot, and I wondered if my arrival on the train from Vilnius would be stressful. Happily, the border formalities were anticlimactically placid. The friendly young woman in the seat next to me translated questions posed by a stocky border agent in a gravity-defying peaked cap; he inquired as to the purpose of my trip and asked for my medical insurance information. My passport was stamped and soon thereafter the train resumed its steady lumber toward Minsk.

Once I was on the ground in Minsk, my remaining obligation was easily met. I showed up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, turned in two passport-sized photos, and was given a laminated temporary press accreditation card within ten minutes. Though it expired shortly after I left Belarus, that card instantly became a prized possession, something I’ll keep around for some time.

Was all this a pain? Why yes, yes it was. Yet it is impossible, particularly as the holder of passport that provides (according to one recent survey) visa-free access to 169 of 223 of the world’s countries and territories, not to think after an experience like this about the stresses and bureaucratic contortions that the citizens of many countries have to go through–and with much greater frequency and under more invasive scrutiny, to boot.