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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Flags without countries

flags
Do you recognize this flag? Neither did I. It’s the flag of Lapland. Lapland isn’t a country, but a region in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia where the Sámi (Lapps) live. Only Norway recognizes this flag, and it’s flown throughout the country on February 6 to celebrate Sámi National Day.

I discovered this flag in Aberystwyth, Wales, of all places, while walking along the seaside promenade. It was flying proudly in the stiff breeze and caught my attention because I’d never seen it before. Then I noticed a whole line of flags I’d never seen before. A sign explained that because the Welsh so rarely see their flag flying in foreign countries, they decided to fly the flags of various European regions that are seeking autonomy or independence. The display of flags without countries was an interesting lesson in European politics and history. Several are shown in the gallery.

%Gallery-129478%Europe is a patchwork of different languages and cultural groups. Many are subsumed into greater national entities and this causes friction. One of the deepest divides in Europe is between is in Belgium, where Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south may very well become two different countries. Luckily this debate has been nonviolent, although not always civil.

Many regions are looking for greater linguistic recognition. France’s strict one-language policy has raised the ire of groups that speak other languages, such as the people of Britanny and Alsace. Some linguistic regions, like Occitania, run across more than one country, further complicating any attempt at greater recognition.

Some independence movements are small, like that in Sardinia, while other are marred by a radical extreme that has undermined the legitimacy of the general movement, like in Corsica and the Basque region.

While none of the flags shown here represent actual nations, they do reflect the feelings of vibrant cultures that enrich Europe. Many of the people who fly these flags probably realize they won’t ever see true independence, and some may not even want it. They fly these flags to show the world who they are. And you never know, when the monument was set up in Aberystwyth, it included the flags of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and they’re real nations now!

If you’re interested in flags, check out the amazing Flags of the World website for lots more.

Four hotel deals in France this winter

Go to Europe this winter! Bessé Signature Hotels, a collection of some of France‘s most unique contemporary hotels, has three deals that make travel to this inspiring corner of the world easier than ever. At discounts of up to 35 percent, it’s going to be hard to stay home.

At Domaine de la Bretesche, take advantage of the “Winter Promotion” rate to enjoy Brittany for around $280 a night. La Bretesche is a Relais & Chateau property with only 32 rooms and suites wrapped in a fortified 15th century estate. While you’re there, dine at Montaigu, a Michelin-starred restaurant, get rubbed down at the Spa de la Cour Carree and play 18 holes surrounded by a century old forest.

At Hotel Edouard 7 in Paris, start every excursion into the city from avenue de l’Opera, not far from the Louvre and Place Vendome. The latest special involves a “currency guarantee”: book at $399 a night through December 15, 2009, and don’t worry about any swings in the euro. Normally, average euro-denominated rate for this hotel is €345 (which comes out to $512).

The Hotel Bel-Ami is in Paris’ St Germain-des-pres district and is also offering a dollar-denominated guarantee. Book for $395 a night through the end of 2010 to get a double superior room and breakfast daily.

Crash for a night or two at the Hotel Jules in Paris by December 28, 2009, you can save 20 percent and enjoy a complimentary buffet breakfast … for just €160. And, you can add a third night to your stay for only €134.

Golf, spa and 15th century charm in Brittany

A round of golf and a trip to the spa can make any vacation even better. Now, put both those activities – and you – in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France. It’s even better, right? If this sounds good to you, check out the Hotel Domaine de la Bretesche‘s new “Golf and Spa” package. It runs through the end of the year and can save you more than 35 percent.

For €537 a night, you’ll get a room at Hotel Domaine de la Bretesche, breakfast every day and dinner at the hotel’s le Montaigu restaurant – run by Michelin-starred chef Gilles Charpy. You and your traveling companion will each get a treatment at Spa de la Cour Carree and 18 holes on the hotel’s golf course. Essentially, pay for the spa, meals and golf, and your room is free.

The hotel has only 32 rooms, all in a fortified 15th century estate. Enjoy this old world elegance … and don’t forget to bring your clubs!