St. John's Day


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St. John's Day

On December 27 the Christian calendar commemorates St. John the Evangelist, also called St. John the Divine. One of the twelve apostles of Jesus, John is known as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Perhaps this explains why he was honored with a feast day that falls just two days after Christmas. Germans and Austrians observed the day with the blessing and drinking of wine. At an old ceremony known as the Johannissegen, Roman Catholic priests blessed wine brought in by parishioners. The people then took the wine home and toasted one another with it, saying, "Drink the love of St. John." According to folklore, the blessed wine also bestowed health on all who drank it. For this reason even babies were encouraged to take a sip of the holy liquid on St. John's Day. Folklore also claimed that the blessed wine warded off lightning, attracted a bountiful harvest, kept other wines from going sour, and banished many diseases.

History and Legends

St. John's Day is one of three Christian festivals that follow in close succession upon Christmas. St. Stephen's Day occurs on December 26, St. John's Day on December 27, and Holy Innocents' Day on December 28. These commemorative days were established by the late fifth century. The figures they honor share two things in common. Stephen, John, and the Innocents all lived during the time of Christ and were martyred for him. In addition, Stephen, John, and the Innocents represent all the possible combinations of the distinction between martyrs of will and martyrs of deed. The children slaughtered at King Herod's command in Bethlehem did not choose their fate, but suffered it nonetheless, and so were considered martyrs in deed. St. John willingly risked death in his defense of the Christian faith, but did not suffer death, and so was considered a martyr of will. St. Stephen risked and suffered death for his faith, and thus became a martyr of will and deed. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europeans were celebrating St. John's Day with the consumption of large quantities of wine, blessed and otherwise. These celebrations may have been inspired by a legend in which John was offered a cup of poisoned wine by a pagan priest. In some versions of the story John drinks the wine with no effect, in others he detects the poison before drinking it.

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. "December 27 - St. John the Evangelist's Day." In his The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Midsummer Day (St. John's Day)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Folkloric, Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: June 24, or nearest Friday
Where Celebrated: Brazil, Europe, Scandinavia
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Wheel
Related Holidays: Beltane, Inti Raymi Festival, Summer Solstice

ORIGINS

This ancient pagan festival celebrating the SUMMER SOLSTICE was originally observed on June 21, the longest day of the year. Like BELTANE in Ireland, Midsummer Day in Europe and the Scandinavian countries was a time to light BON FIRES and drive out evil. At one time it was believed that all natural waters had medicinal powers on this day, and people bathed in rivers and streams to cure their illnesses.

When Christianity spread throughout the pagan world, the Midsummer festival on June 24 became St. John's Day, in honor of St. John the Baptist. Christian symbolism was attached to many of the pre-Christian rites associated with this day. The bonfires, for example, were renamed "St. John's Fires," and the herbs that were picked on this day for their healing powers were called "St. John's herbs." But the pagan customs and beliefs surrounding Midsummer Day never really disappeared, and the Feast of St. John is still associated with the solstice and solstitial rites.

Midsummer Day marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

In Sweden, the Midsommar celebration begins on a Friday and lasts through Sunday. Every town and village sets up a maypole (see MAY DAY), which is decorated with flowers, leaves, and flags. One of the most popular places to spend the Midsommar weekend is in the province of Dalarna, where some of Sweden's oldest wooden cottages have been preserved. Because Sweden is located so far north, Midsommar is called "the day that never ends." The sun doesn't begin to set until 10:00 p.m., and it rises again at 2:00 a.m. In areas of Norway and Sweden that lie above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines twenty-four hours a day in the summer.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bonfires

Fire festivals were held all over Europe on June 23 (the SUMMER SOLSTICE) or on Midsummer Day (June 24) during pre-Christian times. The solstice is the turning point in the sun's journey across the sky: After climbing higher and higher, it stops and begins to retrace its steps. Ancient peoples believed they could stop the sun's decline by kindling their own "suns" in the form of bonfires.

Bonfires were originally called "bone fires" because young boys would often throw bones and other noxious-smelling things on the fire to drive away monsters and evil spirits. Over the centuries, these fires attracted many folk beliefs and rituals. For example, people believed that their crops would grow as high as the flames reached, or as high as they could jump over the burning embers. Farmers drove their cattle through the fires to guard them against disease and to promote their fertility. Sometimes ashes from the bonfires were scattered over the fields to protect the crops from blight and to ensure a good harvest.

Midsummer bonfires were associated with courtship and fertility rituals as well. Young girls would often make wreaths out of leaves and ribbons, then hang them in a tall fir tree that had been cut down and erected in the middle of the fire. As the flames licked at their heels, young boys would climb the tree, take down the wreaths, and stand on one side of the fire while their girlfriends stood on the other. Sometimes the girls would throw the wreaths across the fire to the boys they wanted to marry. Then, as the flames died down, the couples would join hands and leap over the fire three times for good luck.

In Bohemia, a region in the western Czech Republic, young boys would collect all the worn-out brooms they could find, dip them in pitch, and after setting them on fire, wave them around or throw them up in the air. Sometimes they would run Midsummer Day

headlong down a hillside, brandishing their torches and shouting. The burned stumps of the brooms would then be stuck in their families' gardens to protect them from caterpillars and gnats. Some people put them in their fields or on the roofs of their houses as a charm against lightning, fire, and bad weather.

In Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, midsummer bonfires were known as "Balder's balefires." Lighting them was a way of reenacting the myth of Balder, the Scandinavian god of poetry who was killed when Loki, a divine mischiefmaker, struck him with a bough of mistletoe. His body was burned on a pyre at the time of the summer solstice. Later on, effigies of Balder were thrown into the midsummer bonfires.

When Midsummer Day became St. John's Day, the Church gave new meaning to the bonfires. Since Jesus had once called John the Baptist "a burning and a shining light" (John 5:35), church officials decided that the fires should stand for St. John instead of the sun. The fact that it was St. John who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan dovetailed nicely with the pagan belief in the medicinal powers of water on Midsummer Day.

Although at one time midsummer bonfires were popular from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east, and from Norway and Sweden all the way south to Greece and Spain, today the bonfire tradition is still alive in only a few countries-primarily Sweden, Finland, and Lithuania. Roman Catholics in Brazil build large bonfires in front of their houses on St. John's Day to commemorate Elizabeth, St. John's mother and a cousin of the Virgin Mary. According to legend, Elizabeth promised to notify Mary of the birth of her child by building a bonfire in front of her house and setting off fireworks. In the United States, midsummer bonfires have been moved to the FOURTH OF JULY.

Wheel

Sometimes the straw that had been collected for the Midsummer BONFIRE was attached to a wheel and set on fire. As the wheel burned, two young men would grab the handles that projected from the axle and run downhill with it, often extinguishing the flames in a river or stream at the bottom of the hill. The wheel, of course, represented the sun, and letting it roll downhill was a demonstration of the fact that having reached its highest point in the sky, the sun was now beginning its descent. In Germany, the sun's "falling" is still celebrated on St. John's Day with burning wheels rolled down hills. It is considered good luck if a wheel burns all the way to the bottom of the hill.

In some European countries, burning discs were hurled into the night sky after being kindled in bonfires. Their flight made them resemble fiery dragons, symbolic of the monsters believed to roam the earth on this night.

FURTHER READING

Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

WEB SITE

Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs www.vm.ee/estonia/kat_174/pea_174/1190.html

St. John's Day

June 24
It is unusual for a saint's day to commemorate his birth rather than his death, but John the Baptist (d. c. 29) and the Virgin Mary are the exceptions here. ( See Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the). Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, and Lutherans honor St. John on the anniversary of his birth; the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches commemorate his death as well, on August 29 ( see St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of).
John was the cousin of Jesus, born in their old age to Zechariah and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of the Virgin Mary. John was the one chosen to prepare the way for the Messiah. It is a pious belief of many that he was sanctified—that is, freed from original sin—in his mother's womb when she was visited by Mary. ( See Visitation, Feast of the.) He lived as a hermit in the wilderness on a diet of honey and locusts until it was time to begin his public ministry. He preached repentance of sins and baptized many, including Jesus ( see Epiphany). He denounced King Herod and his second wife, Herodias, and it was she who vowed revenge for John's condemnation of her marriage, and who had her daughter, Salome, demand the Baptist's head on a platter.
Many St. John's Day customs date from pre-Christian times, when June 24 was celebrated as Midsummer Day. Celebrations in some areas still bear the hallmarks of the old pagan Summer Solstice rites, such as bonfires, dancing, and decorating with flowers. For the French in Canada, the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, especially in Quebec. The San Juan Fiesta in New York City takes place on the Sunday nearest June 24 and is the year's most important festival for Hispanic Americans.
St. John's Day ( Día de San Juan ) is a major holiday throughout Mexico. As the patron saint of waters, St. John is honored by decorating fountains and wells and by bathing in local streams and rivers. The bathing begins at midnight—often to the accompaniment of village bands—and it is customary for spectators to throw flowers among the bathers. In Mexico City and other urban centers, the celebration takes place in fashionable bath-houses rather than rivers, where there are diving and swimming contests as well. Street vendors sell small mules made out of cornhusks, decorated with flowers and filled with sugar cane and candy.
A family of yellow-flowered plants, commonly called St.-John's-wort, is used by voodoo conjurors and folk medicine practitioners to ward off evil spirits and ensure good luck. In the southern United States, all species of the plant are called John the Conqueror root, or "John de Conker," and all parts of it are used: the root, leaves, petals, and stems. The plant's imagery is often mentioned in African-American folklore and blues music.
The leaves, and often the petals, contain oil and pigment-filled glands that appear as reddish spots when held to the light. According to legend, these spots are John the Baptist's blood, and the plant is most potent if rituals are performed on his birthday.
See also San Juan and San Pedro Festivals; San Juan Pueblo Feast Day; St. Hans Festival
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 473
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 814
BkFest-1937, p. 229
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 98
BkHolWrld-1986, Jun 24
DaysCustFaith-1957, pp. 151, 222
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 1063, 1082
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 384
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 140
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 264
IndianAmer-1989, pp. 287, 296, 312, 319
OxYear-1999, p. 263

Celebrated in: Guatemala, Lithuania, Portugal


St. John's Day (Guatemala)
June 24
Día de San Juan or St. John's Day has been observed by some Guatemalan Indians, especially those in Camotan, Chiquimula Department, and San Juan SacatepÉquez, Guatemala Department, with a traditional dance known as Los Gigantes (The Giants). It is based on a story from the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the QuichÉ Mayan Indians, but it also incorporates two events from the Bible: the beheading of St. John the Baptist and David's struggle against Goliath. The dancers wear red, blue, yellow and white costumes; these colors symbolize the four directions of the compass. Some dancers also wear veils, which refers to an ancient belief that at one time the sun and moon had faces that were veiled. Using their swords, dancers outline the path the sun takes when it rises and sets in both the opening and closing sequences of the dance.
CONTACTS:
Embassy of Guatemala
2220 R St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-745-4952; fax: 202-745-1908
www.guatemalaembassy.org
SOURCES:
FiestaTime-1965, p. 103

Celebrated in: Guatemala


St. John's Day (Portugal)
June 24
Both St. John's Day and St. John's Eve ( see also Midsummer Day) are widely celebrated in Portugal with parades, pageants, bullfights, fireworks, and other popular amusements. Many of the traditional rites connected with fire, water, and love are still observed here as well. Young people dance around bonfires and couples often leap over these fires, holding hands. Mothers sometimes hold their children over the burning embers, and cattle and flocks are driven through the ashes—all to take advantage of the curative powers of St. John's fires. Similar traditions focus on water, which on St. John's Eve is supposed to possess great healing power.
One of the most interesting St. John's Day celebrations takes place in Braga and is known as the Dança de Rei David, or Dance of King David. The role of King David is always performed by a member of a certain family living near Braga, and the dance itself probably dates back to medieval times. The King is dressed in a tall crown and voluminous cape. Ten shepherds or courtiers who accompany him wear velvet coats in brilliant colors and turban-style hats. Shepherds play ancient tunes on their fiddles, flutes, and triangles. As they parade through town this group stops frequently to perform the ritualistic Dance of King David.
CONTACTS:
Portuguese National Tourist Office
590 Fifth Ave., 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10036
800-767-8842 or 212-354-4403; fax: 212-764-6137
www.visitportugal.com
SOURCES:
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1082

Celebrated in: Portugal


St. John's Day (Puerto Rico)
June 24
Wading or bathing in the water on St. John's Day is a tradition that many see as symbolic of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. In Puerto Rico, San Juan Day is observed by gathering at the beaches to eat, dance, drink, build bonfires, and bathe in the Caribbean. At midnight, revelers take a swim in the ocean, a tradition based on the biblical scene in which John, the cousin of Jesus, baptizes him. Over the years, the religious significance of the event has been overshadowed, and today bathing in the water is believed to bring good luck in the coming year.
The annual St. John the Baptist Day parade in Camden, New Jersey, has been going on since the 1950s, not long after the first Puerto Ricans began migrating there to take jobs in the Campbell Soup factory. Billed as the only organized parade in the city, the event is eagerly anticipated by the area's thousands of Hispanic Americans, many of whom line the parade route from Cooper and Second Streets to Wiggins Park along the waterfront. There is a competition for the best float and a steady procession of salsa dancers, folk dancers, and beauty queens. The parade marks the culmination of a week of festivities—including a banquet, art exhibits, and a flag-raising ceremony—that honor the area's Hispanics.
In Hartford, Connecticut, a San Juan Bautista Festival has been held on the Saturday nearest June 24 since 1979. Sponsored by the San Juan Center, Inc., it includes Puerto Rican food and entertainment, particularly bands that play Puerto Rican music and use traditional instruments of the homeland. Although the Hartford festival is designed to give the area's Puerto Rican population an opportunity to celebrate their heritage, it draws many other people as well.
CONTACTS:
Puerto Rico Tourism Company
666 Fifth Ave., 15th Fl.
New York, NY 10103
800-866-7827 or 212-586-6262; fax: 212-586-1212
www.gotopuertorico.com
SOURCES:
AnnivHol-2000, p. 105
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 268

Celebrated in: Puerto Rico

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