St John's Eve

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St John's Eve
Date 23 June
Next time 23 June 2015 (2015-06)
Frequency annual
St. John's Eve is typically celebrated with a bonfire called St. John's Fire, as at the Château de Montfort (Cote-d'Or), France.

The evening of 23 June, St John's Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:36, 56–57) states that John was born about six months before Jesus, therefore the feast of John the Baptist was fixed on 24 June six months before Christmas. This feast day is one of the very few saints' days to mark the supposed anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of the saint commemorated.

The Feast of St John coincides with the June solstice also referred to as Midsummer. The Christian holy day is fixed at 24 June but in some countries, festivities are celebrated the night before on St John's Eve.

Symbolic elements[edit]

Fire of St John's Eve in Quimper.


Fire is the most typical element associated with the Saint John's Eve celebration.[1] In many countries, such as Croatia, bonfires are lit on the evening of 23 June for people to jump over.

Medicinal plants[edit]

Traditionally, women collect several species of plants on St. John's eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows, laburnum, foxgloves and elder flowers. On the Feast of St. John, it is customary to gather the perennial herb "St. John's Wort". It's long been seen as a means to keep evil away, and since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirit away. It is also used medicinally, and was used thus by the Knights Hospitallers. In some areas, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.


Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John's Day.

Bracken (Pteris aquilina) is sometimes called brake or female fern. The minute spores of this fern were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born.[2]

In Denmark, the celebration is called sankthans or sankthansaften ("St. John's Eve"). It is the day where the medieval wise men and women would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.The Danes often meet with family and friends to have dinner together. If the weather is good, they then proceed to a local bonfire venue. Here the bonfire with the witch on top is lit around 10 pm. Beforehand, a bonfire speech is often made, at large events normally by a well-known person. According to popular belief, St John’s Eve was charged with a special power where evil forces were also at work. People believed that the witches flew past on their broomsticks on their way to the Brocken. To keep the evil forces away, the bonfires were usually lit on high ground. Placing a witch – made of old clothes stuffed with hay – on the bonfire is a tradition which did not become common until the 20th century.[3]

Night on Bald Mountain[edit]

Modest Mussorgsky's composition Night on Bald Mountain was originally titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. The first version appeared in 1867 and was revised around 1872 and again in 1880. In this last version he added a hauntingly beautiful quiet ending in which a church bell announces the dawn and daybreak chases away the evil spirit. Night on Bald Mountain has remained an audience favourite ever since its appearance in Walt Disney’s landmark movie, Fantasia.[4]

Traditional celebrations[edit]


The feast of St. John the Baptist, is one of the quarter days in England. The town of Midsomer Norton, in Somerset, England, is sometimes said to be named after the Feast Day of St John the Baptist, which is also the parish church.


"Jaanipäev" ("John's Day" in English) was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. Midsummer marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making. Estonians celebrate "Jaaniõhtu" on the eve of the Summer Solstice (June 23) with bonfires. On the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, old fishing boats may be burnt in the large pyres set ablaze. On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries. The celebrations that accompany Jaaniõhtu carry on usually through the night, they are the largest and most important of the year, and the traditions are almost identical to Finland and similar to neighbours Latvia and Sweden.


In France, the "Fête de la Saint-Jean" (feast of St John), traditionally celebrated with bonfires (le feu de la Saint-Jean) that are reminiscent of Midsummer's pagan rituals, is a catholic festivity in celebration of Saint John the Baptist. It takes place on June 24, on Midsummer day (St John's day). In certain French towns, a tall bonfire is built by the inhabitants in order to be lit on St John's Day. In the Vosges region and in the Southern part of Meurthe-et-Moselle, this huge bonfire is named "chavande".


In Quebec, Canada, the celebration of St John's Day was brought to New France by the first French colonists. Great fires were lit at night. According to the Jesuit Relations, the first celebrations of in New France took place around 1638 on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River on the evening of June 23, 1636 with a bonfire and five cannon shots. In 1834, Ludger Duvernay, printer and editor of La Minerve took the leadership of an effort to make June 24 the national holiday of the Canadiens (French Canadians). In 1908, Pope Pius X designated John the Baptist as the patron saint of the French-Canadians. In 1925, June 24 became a legal holiday in Quebec and in 1977, it became the secular National Holiday of Quebec.


On June 21 Hungarians celebrate "Saint Ivan's Night" (Szentiván-éj) (Iván derived from the Slavic form of John, translated as Jovános, Ivános, Iván in Hungarian). The whole month of June was once called Month of St. Ivan until the 19th century. Setting fires is a folklore tradition this night. Girls jumped over it, while boys watched the spectacular. Most significant among the customs of the summer is lighting the fire of Midsummer Night (szentiváni tűzgyújtás) on the day of St. John (June 24), when the sun follows the highest course, when the nights are the shortest and the days the longest. The practice of venerating St. John the Baptist developed in the Catholic Church during the 5th century, and at this time they put his name and day on June 24. In the Middle Ages it was primarily an ecclesiastical festivity, but from the 16th century on the sources recall it as a folk custom. The most important episode of the custom is the lighting of the fire.


In some rural parts of Ireland, particularly in the north-west, Bonfire Night is held on St. John's Eve, when bonfires are lit on hilltops.[5] Many towns and cities have "Midsummer Carnivals", with fairs, concerts and fireworks, around the same time. in County Cork in southwest ireland the night is commonly referred to as bonfire night and is among the busiest nights of the year for the fire services


The feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Florence from medieval times, and certainly in the Renaissance, with festivals sometimes lasting three days from 21 to 24 June. Such celebrations are held nowadays in Cesena from 21–24 June also with a special street market. Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Genoa, Florence and Turin where a fireworks display takes place during the celebration on the river. In Turin Saint John's cult is also diffused since medieval times when the city stops to work for two days and people from the surroundings comes to dance around the bonfire in the central square.


In Jersey most of the former midsummer customs are largely ignored nowadays. The custom known as Les cônes d'la Saint Jean was observed as late as the 1970s - horns or conch shells were blown. Ringing the bachîn (a large brass preserving pan) at midsummer to frighten away evil spirits survived as a custom on some farms until the 1940s and has been revived as a folk performance in the 21st century.


In Latvia the festival is known as Līgo vakars (lit. Sway Eve) or Jāņu vakars (lit. John's Eve).


In Lithuania the festival is known as 'Joninės' or 'Rasos' (Dew Holiday). The traditions include singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight, jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake. These are customs brought from pagan culture and beliefs.[citation needed][specify]


In Mexico this is a day for swimming, singing, dancing and eating. Great hampers of chicken tamales and stuffed peppers are carried to the swimming parties.[6]


In Poland the festival is known as 'sobótki'. Traditional folk rituals include groups of young men and women singing ritual songs to each other. The young women may wear crowns fashioned from wild flowers, which are later thrown into a nearby pond or lake. The boys/young men may then swim out to claim one of the crowns. Bonfires (and bonfire jumping) are also part of the proceedings.


There are St John's street parties in many cities, towns and villages, mainly between the evening on the 23rd and the actual St.John's Day on the 24th of June. St John's night in Porto (noite de São João) is considered by several guides as one of the best parties in the world.[7] The actual Midsummer, St John's day, is celebrated traditionally more in Porto and Braga.


Portuguese St. John's Day, brought to Brazil during colonial times, has become a popular event that is celebrated during a period that starts one week before St. Anthony's Day (June 13) and ends after St. Peter's Day (June 29). This nationwide festival is called "Festa Junina" (June Festival), or São João and takes place during midwinter in most of the country. The Northeastern region of Brazil concentrates the most elaborated parties, more specifically in the cities of Caruaru-Pernambuco, Campina Grande-Paraiba, Salvador-Bahia and in smaller cities like Cruz das Almas, Senhor do Bonfim, Ibicui, Jequie and Ilheus also in Bahia. In Campina Grande and Caruaru, the festivities are approximately 30 days long. In the evening on June 23, Catholics all over Brazil light a big fire, symbolising a Catholic tale: During a conversation, John's mother, Elizabeth, agreed to light a big fire to notify her cousin Mary (mother of Jesus) that she had given birth, that she might get post-partum assistance from her cousin.

Puerto Rico[edit]

On the island of Puerto Rico, originally named San Juan Batista, after the saint, by Christopher Columbus, a night-long celebration is held. After sunset, people travel to a beach or any accessible body of water (e.g. river, lake or even bathtub) and, at midnight, fall backwards into it three, seven or twelve times. This is done to cleanse the body from bad luck and give good luck for the following year.[citation needed]


St. John's Fire by Nikolai Astrup, 1912.

In the Scandinavian countries, in which the evening is called Sankt Hans or Jonsok, short for Saint Johannes or Saint John's Wake, the tradition is to gather around a large fire. In some countries (Denmark) a witch burning is included. The witch is represented by a doll, often made by the children, wearing old clothes and having an evil look. This evening is a large celebration, often enjoyed together with drinking, dancing and festiveness for the whole town. In Sweden the celebration is called midsummer and takes place on a Friday close to the actual date. Swedish historian Olaus Magnus in 1555 recorded this traditional outdoor celebration including numerous bonfires, dancing and singing of traditional songs.

Shetland Isles[edit]

The Johnsmas Foy festivities on the Shetland Isles, where the people are still proud of their Nordic roots also take place in the week building up to the 23/24 June. These may also have their origins in the Scandinavian St John's Eve festivities.


Bonfires are also used in the Basque country to celebrate San Juan Eguna, (the feast of St. John the Baptist), which marks the Basque Summer Solstice. In some towns the celebration is supplemented with more festivities and dances.[8]

Castile and León: it is also celebrated and it can be highlighted the Firewalking Festival of San Pedro Manrique (Soria), where barefoot men cross the live coals of a meticulously prepared bonfire.[9]

The traditional midsummer party in Catalonia is the celebration in honour of Sant Joan (St. John the Baptist) and takes place on the evening of June 23. Bonfires are lit and a set of firework displays usually takes place. On the Mediterranean coast, especially in Catalonia and València, special foods, such as Coca de Sant Joan, are also served on this occasion. In Alicante, since 1928, the bonfires of Saint John has developed into elaborate constructions inspired by the Fallas of Valencia. In Spain, ancient pre-Christian traditions related to fire festivities are still among the most popular. Bonfires are lit in the streets or on the sand of the beaches, the rituals are jumping over the fire, touching the water that is blessed in the night or making wishes, and there are fireworks too. Special meals are also served on this occasion. One of the centers of the festival is in Ciutadella; but many different cities and towns have their own unique traditions associated with the festival. Midsummer tradition is also especially strong in northern areas of the country, such as Galicia.[10]

United States[edit]

Historically, this date has been venerated in the practice of Louisiana Voodoo. The famous Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau was said to have held ceremonies on the Bayou St. John, in New Orleans, commemorating St John's Eve.[11] Many New Orleans residents still keep the tradition alive.[12]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]