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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The New New Orleans: Finally, Louis Armstrong Plays Again

North Rampart Street forms the western border of New Orleans‘ French Quarter. On one side, streets named St. Louis, St. Peter and Dumaine lead to picturesque homes, elegant restaurants and rowdy bars. On the other side of Rampart sits a park that’s been both feared and beloved by residents and visitors, avoided by some, a lifeline for others.

Louis Armstrong Park has been through a series of trials in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Named for one of the city’s most famous musical sons, the park that was supposed to be a tribute instead became something to avoid.

Although it houses a historic landmark, Congo Square, where slaves came to socialize and share African rhythms, many tourists never saw it, or were told not to set foot inside. Fences kept many out, including residents of the Treme neighborhood nearby.

The worst insult came in summer 2010, when a botched facelift went awry and a contractor cracked the toe of the Louis Armstrong statue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered work to stop and the park was closed. The city discovered newly poured sidewalks were cracked, curbs and manholes damaged, and a sprinkler system was improperly installed. Even one of the park’s soaring palm trees was knocked down.

A new contractor was found, work began anew, and finally, last year, Louis Armstrong Park came back to life, a symbol of the New New Orleans that’s evolved since the storm.

%Gallery-170746%Although the 32-acre space is rarely crowded on weekdays, it’s become a stop for visiting tour groups, like a bunch of French teenagers who posed for pictures and generally ignored a guide trying to explain the site’s historic importance.

McKenzie Coco, a new resident of the French Quarter, came to the park with her husband recently to walk their three dogs. “I always felt sad that it wasn’t being utilized,” Coco said. Now, “it’s well-lit, and safe, and it’s a real positive place for the neighborhood.”

Nobody was happier to see the park return than Ben Harwood and Emanuel Lain, the co-founders of People United For Armstrong Park.

Over the past few years, Harwood and Lain have spearheaded community efforts to bring the park back up to life. With almost no corporate backing, and using volunteers, the pair put together a summer concert series that drew 50,000 people to Armstrong Park. They just held a benefit for the concert series, and plan to expand it by more than double for 2013.

Harwood, a native of Detroit who lives in Treme, and Lain, who grew up in New Orlean’s ninth ward but who attended church near the park, met when Lain knocked on Harwood’s door to ask what should be done with the Municipal Auditorium, which sits within the park.

Quickly, the conversation turned to the closed park, and what might be done to help it. Although they were bent on seeing it come back to life, they say their efforts to rehabilitate the park were not always greeted with warmth by its neighbors.

Although they surveyed several thousand residents, and held two public meetings, “some people told us to stop doing it. This was their park,” Harwood recalls. “We had to be bullheaded, and do what had to be done.”

Disaster funds, which are less restrictive than federal block grants, were available, but it seemed like other projects in New Orleans had a much higher priority, and the park was not listed on city officials’ priority list. “Basically, it seemed like the city was just going to keep the park locked, and that was it.”

The organizers gathered 2,000 signatures demanding that the park be reopened, put together a second line parade that stretched from Congo Square to City Hall, and essentially drove home their point that the park was important to the people who lived in New Orleans. “We did a lot of knife-twisting, using the media, to get the city to admit that this park existed,” he said.

Once work got underway, the PULAP group got an unexpected surge of support when contractors cracked the Armstrong statue. “People were really pissed,” Harwood recalls. There was lingering frustration over the fact that a portion of the park remained fenced in, despite all the renovation work that’s taken place.

Although the park now gleams under streetlights in the evening, Lain says there is more to be done to bring the park back to the way it was when he was young. “Those lagoons used to be clean enough to swim in,” he says, gesturing to the ponds on the north side of the park. He and Harwood have numerous ideas, beyond the concert series, to attract more visitors, whether locals or tourists.

Wireless Internet, like the service available in New York’s Bryant Park, could guarantee users all day long, and help people in the neighborhood who don’t have Web access. Food trucks and coffee stands might attract city workers who have few affordable choices. The organizers would like to see the park used by school bands and other young musicians, who could earn their performance stripes by playing traditional New Orleans jazz.

But, for now, says Lain, the improvements will come one step at a time. “This park needed a champion and our organization is just that,” Lain said.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]