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.


The next innovation in cruise ship entertainment – real grass

Cruise companies are amongst the most creative minds in the travel world – each time a new ship is launched, passengers are treated to amenities never seen before on a ship. In recent years we’ve seen outdoor movie theaters, wave pools and a massive indoor atrium.

The next innovation is being introduced on the Celebrity Cruises Solstice. This 1425 room mammoth of the seas features a half acre of real grass on its upper deck. The grass and irrigation systems add a whopping 150 tons to the weight of the ship, which isn’t that impressive when you realize that the ship itself weighs in at 122,000 tons.

The green is called the “Lawn Club”, and passengers can play a round of golf or bocce, or simply sit down and enjoy a picnic.

If the country club style lawn does not impress you, there are also 10 restaurants, 10 bars, a hot glass blowing demonstration (really!), a theater, a comedy club, multiple pools (including an indoor lap pool) and an art gallery to keep you entertained.

The Celebrity Solstice is currently in operation, and a 7 day cruise of the Caribbean starts at $649 per person.

Stonehenge Solstice Celebrations

Broadly speaking, summer solstice — the longest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere, at least — is a time to celebrate the arrival of warm weather; the impending harvest; and — for some — the birds and the bees. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, summer solstice is associated with Stonehenge and Druids.

I don’t know if the all people who celebrate summer solstice at Stonehenge today are Druids — they look a lot the hippies I went to college with — but their celebrations look like fun. Generally speaking, they feature a lot of dancing and singing and didgeridoo’ing and jumping around. There’s some standing around, too, waiting for the sun to rise. It looks something like this:
But it also looks somewhat more peaceful, serene — and even mystical. Here’s a two-part series showing the celebrations. This is probably more what I had in mind when I think “summer solstice” and “Stonehenge.” Part I:
Part II:
Thee guys are definitely NOT Druids — or hippies:

This happens, too — but I don’t know why the revelers need to be naked:
If you put the right kind of music on, the celebration seems more mystical:

I’m not sure how “mystical” the event is, though:
In the end, a lot of people show up — including King Arthur!

Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice Celebration

This Thursday, June 21, is the Summer Solstice (or June Solstice, or Northern Solstice, or whatever you want to call it). The fact is, Thursday is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Since most of us will be toiling at work on that long day, the organizers of the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration wisely decided to schedule their solstice celebration for Saturday, June 23. Sure, the day is a tad bit shorter — but Saturdays just feel more like party-days, don’t they?

Begun in 1974, today the Parade is the largest, single-day arts event in Santa Barbara County, drawing crowds of over 100,000 spectators from around the world. The theme of the Celebration for 2007 is “Stars.”

In addition to a parade — which features 1000+ starry-eyed participants, extravagant star-shaped floats, and whimsical star-inspired costumes — the event sports a festival with lots of star-themed crafts and food (star fruit, anyone?). Want an idea of what the event is like? Check the gallery of images from the past few years.

Sounds like fun: I’ll give it a gold star.

[Thanks, Michelle!]