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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A Beginner’s Guide To Swedish Midsommar

Bengt Nyman, Flickr

Pickled herring, drinking songs, a pole covered in flowers, boiled potatoes, dancing like frogs. Yes, that’s Swedish Midsommar (otherwise known as “Midsummer” in English).

Thanks to Swedish roots around the world and a general love of Scandinavian culture, the popular Swedish holiday – the sun was gone all winter, you would want to celebrate the longest day of the year too – is well known outside of the Nordic lands.

Not well versed on this Swedish celebration? First off, get the basics from this video by the Sweden.se:

Now, let’s get to the important part: celebrating. How are you going to get a Midsummer celebration going if you’re not in Sweden? Easy. Follow these simple steps.

Round up a few friends that like to eat and drink.
This will probably be your easiest task.

Find a long table.
Midsummer dinner tends to be served as a sit down meal complete with a nice tablecloth, napkins and real silverware. This is not your average American BBQ.

Make a midsummer pole.
If you don’t have the manpower to hoist up a long one, construct a smaller makeshift one.

Dance around said midsummer pole.
Dancing is a precursor to eating.

Track down some pickled herring.
It’s not Swedish Midsummer without it.

Serve Aquavit.
Again, you can’t call it Swedish Midsummer if you don’t have the classic drink.

Make a dessert that involves fresh berries.
Preferably strawberries and ideally in cake format.

Eat and drink late into the night/early morning.
The sun isn’t really going to ever set after all.

A few Swedish inspired Midsummer recipes to get you started:
Gin + Aquavit Cocktail
Matjessil Salad
New Potatoes with Dill Butter
Pickled Mustard Herring

Glad Midsommar!

Five ways to enjoy the midnight sun in Oulu

midnight sun oulu

As the days grew longer this spring I began to fantasize about spending summer solstice under the midnight sun. I recalled with excitement that dulled buzz that comes from not getting enough sleep when it’s constantly light out, a gently energizing sensation so unlike sheer exhaustion. Last week I succumbed to the urge and flew off to the city of Oulu in Finland.

Why Oulu? As is usually the case, my decision was determined by budgetary bottom line. In late May I sat down and looked at all of my options for experiencing the true midnight sun. My research indicated that only a location at or above the 64th parallel north would do the trick. That left a number of decently trafficked airports a single layover away from London: Luleå and Kiruna in Sweden; Bodø, Narvik, and Tromsø in Norway; Oulu and Rovaniemi in Finland.

The cheapest fare I found from London to any of these northern cities was to Oulu via Riga on airBaltic, for €223. I snapped it up.

Oulu, the sixth biggest city in Finland–the fourth biggest if the cities of the greater Helsinki Metropolitan region are counted as one–is a technologically-savvy, bicycling-mad place. The city is saturated by free wi-fi and laced with cycling paths. In the summer, Oulu pulses with restrained energy. Even on a quiet summer night there are plenty of people about, biking, socializing, and swatting away mosquitoes.

In short, summer in Oulu is spectacular and atmospheric. The summer is brief and locals enjoy it fully. Here are five ways to maximize a visit to Oulu during the summer season.1. Explore the city by bike. Oulu has a fantastic infrastructure for bicyclists, with 550 kilometers of cycling trails. The city’s residents use their bikes in impressively high numbers. Families, officeworkers, and tourists all share space on paths and roads. Rent a bike at Pyörä-Suvala or Jussin pyöräpiste.

2. Eat at Sokeri-Jussin Kievari. Located just over the bridge from Oulu’s downtown on the island of Pikisaari, Sokeri-Jussin Kievari is a traditional eatery with a down-home aesthetic. My lunch of vendace fried in butter was delicious, and there are more exotic things on the menu as well. (Also worth a meal is Bar & Grill Kauppuris, with its mammoth burgers of beer-braised pork neck, bacon, steak, and roast beef.)

3. Visit the Oulu Museum of Art. While this may not be a summer-specific activity, a stroll through the museum is certainly worthwhile at present. Through September 11, six contemporary Finnish artists are showing their work in an exhibit titled Close to a Wonder. Among the noteworthy items in the exhibit: Ville Löppönen‘s oil paintings, Pekka and Teija Isorättyä‘s life-size multimedia sculptures, and a set of captivating photographs by Perttu Saksa. Admission to the museum is €3.

4. Check out the Kauppatori or market square at midnight. Some nights you’ll find scores of locals chatting and listening to music. On others, you’ll find a handful of alienated teens and the above unmanned strawberry stand. The adjacent Kauppahalli (Market Hall) is pretty; during the day a notable selection of pastries and local produce is sold inside.

5. Nallikari. A broad beach on the island of Hietasaari, Nallikari is home to a holiday village called Nallikari Camping as well as a spa hotel, Oulun Eden. The beach is beautiful and the waters beyond slope gently. The beach is popular with families and windsurfers. At a distance of about two miles from Oulu’s city center, it is an easy cycling destination. Nallikari also features a miniature golf course.

Some media support was provided by Oulu City Tourist Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Gadling Take FIVE: Week of June 12–June 19

Happy summer. It’s official. The Mermaid Parade is happening in Coney Island today, and Catherine has the scoop on the solstice in Alaska. Hopefully, you’ve snagged a travel bargain. Tomorrow, for starters, take Dad to a National Park for Father’s Day–or take yourself.

  • Annie’s reminiscence of Old San Juan might trigger your own memories of a place you went as a teen.
  • For tips on how to make your life more like travel, Jeremy has advice worth heeding-even if traveling is your middle name.
  • In case Orlando only gives you images of amusement parks, read Tom’s post on what else to do in Orlando. There may not be time for the Magic Kingdom. Next time I go, I want that scenic boat trip in Winter Park.
  • If the world about the news seems too darned depressing, check out Kraig’s post on Art in All of Us. Yes, indeed there are wondrous, uplifting happenings as well.
  • For anyone heading to Morocco, do read Tynan’s latest Life Nomadic missive on the Moroccan hustle. Reading about his experiences trying not to be taken reminded me of the Moroccan segments of Brook Silva-Braga’s documentary, “One Day in Africa.” Being prepared for the everyone is trying to make a deal experience is a wise move. Tynan covers the issue to a T.

The Mermaid Parade at Coney Island

There are certain events that are purely connected to the place where they are held. The Mermaid Parade at Coney Island in Brooklyn is one of them. Tomorrow, June 20 starting at 2 p.m. is the big event. Since 1983, people have been dressing up in over the top creative costumes– mermaid related or not, to join in on one of the largest art parades in the United States. There are floats, bands and generally a whole lot of join-in-the-fun sea-themed hoopla.

People who come to the parade as spectators could just as well join in; it’s that kind of event. The idea is to be creative in a celebration of the artistic and summer. The parade is held the first Saturday after the summer solstice. In effect, hooray for summer, the mermaids are here. Come dressed as a creature of the sea or a mermaid and join in.

Don’t know what to wear? Here’s an idea. Get a baseball hat and glue natural sponges on it. Or go as a coral “wreath” by getting coral from a pet store and hot glue gun it to a wreath form that goes around your head like a crown.

According to the Mermaid Parade Web site, the parade is family friendly, kids are even in the parade. This year the parade route has changed slightly. For details, click here. The viewing stand is still in the same location.