St. John's Eve

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St. John's Eve (Denmark)

June 23
Known in Denmark as Sankt Hans Aften, St. John's Eve occurs near the longest day of the year and therefore is an occasion for national rejoicing. Huge bonfires, often topped with tar barrels or other flammable materials, light up the night sky for miles around. Sometimes an effigy of a witch, perhaps a pagan symbol of winter or death, is thrown on the fire. Along the coast, fires are built on the beach or shore. People go out in their boats to watch them burn and to sing romantic songs. Sometimes there are speeches, singing games, dances, and fireworks as well.
Midsummer Eve is also a popular time for Danes to leave their year-round homes and go to vacation cottages on the coast.
Embassy of Denmark
3200 Whitehaven St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-234-4300; fax: 202-328-1470
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 101
FestWestEur-1958, p. 27

Celebrated in: Denmark

St. John's Eve (France) (La Vielle de la Saint Jean)
June 23
The custom of lighting bonfires on the eve of St. John's Day has been said to originate with the ancient Druids, who built fires at the Summer Solstice in honor of the sun god. Bonfires are still an important part of the festivities on St. John's Eve in France, where participants contribute something to burn. Traditionally, the village priest often lights the fire and leads the townspeople in the singing of hymns and the chanting of prayers.
In upper Brittany, St. John's fires are built around tall poles, which are set on the hilltops. A boy named Jean or a girl named Jeanne provides a bouquet or wreath for the pole and kindles the fire. Then the young people sing and dance around it while it burns. Sometimes the fire is replaced by a burning torch thrown skyward or by a wagon wheel covered with straw, set ablaze, and rolled downhill.
At sea, Breton fishermen traditionally put old clothing in a barrel, hoist it up the mainmast, and set it afire so that other ships in the fishing fleet can share the celebration.
There are many folk beliefs associated with St. John's Eve. One is that strewing the ashes from the St. John's fires over the fields will bring a good harvest. Another is that leaping over the dying embers guarantees that the crops will grow as high as the jumper can jump. In the sheep-raising Jura district, shepherds drive their flower-decked animals in a procession and later nail the flower wreaths to their stable doors as a protection against the forces of evil.
French Government Tourist Office
444 Madison Ave., 16th Fl.
New York, NY 10022
800-391-4909 or 212-838-7800; fax: 212-838-7855
BkFest-1937, p. 125
FestWestEur-1958, p. 43
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 393

Celebrated in: France

St. John's Eve (Germany)(Johannisnacht)
June 23
The Summer Solstice, or Sommersonnenwende, in Germany is observed by lighting the Johannisfeuer, or St. John's fire. Young boys often try to leap through the flames, and young lovers join hands and try to jump over the fire together in the belief that if they succeed, they will never be parted. Cattle driven through the bonfire's ashes are believed to be safe from danger and disease in the coming year.
According to German folklore, the water spirits demanded a human victim on Midsummer Day. But contrary to the danger this implies, people often went out and bathed on St. John's Eve in streams or rivers to cure disease and strengthen their legs. In the Thuringia region, wreaths were hung on the doors because it was believed that St. John the Baptist walked through the streets on this night, and that he would bow to any door with a wreath on it.
BkFest-1937, p. 136
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 723
FestWestEur-1958, p. 68
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 394

Celebrated in: Germany

St. John's Eve (Greece)
June 23
A custom still practiced in some rural Greek villages on St. John's Day is a procession of young boys and girls escorting the Kalinitsa, the girl considered the most beautiful in the neighborhood. On St. John's Eve, the young people gather at the Kalinitsa's house and dress her up as a bride, with a veil and a garland of flowers around her neck. The procession itself is led by a young boy holding a rod. He is followed by the Kalinitsa, who is in turn followed by four "ladies in waiting" and a little girl holding a parasol over the Kalinitsa's head. Other girls and boys accompany them, and they go around the village singing a song about drawing water for the sweet basil. If they should encounter a procession from another neighborhood at a crossroad, the parasols are lowered over the Kalinitsas' faces so they won't set eyes on each other. On the following day, June 24, the children gather at the Kalinitsa's house for a party.
Another old Greek custom, known as the Erma, is for two people who have chosen each other for friends to plant some seeds in a basket and raise them in darkness a few weeks before St. John's Day. On St. John's Eve they exchange plants and pledge their friendship by shaking hands three times over a fire.
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 99
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 146

Celebrated in: Greece

St. John's Eve (Ireland)
June 23
The Irish still celebrate St. John's Eve with bonfires, dancing, omens, and prayers. People build fires on the hillsides and feed the flames with fragrant boughs. As the fires burn low, both old and young people customarily join hands and jump over the embers in the belief that it will bring an abundant harvest. Young Irish girls used to drop melted lead into water on St. John's Eve. They would then look for clues about their future in whatever shape the lead assumed.
According to Irish folklore, the soul leaves the body on this night and wanders about until it reaches the place where death will eventually strike. This belief was so widespread at one time that people routinely sat up all night on St. John's Eve to keep their souls from making the trip.
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 815
BkFest-1937, p. 59
OxYear-1999, p. 259

Celebrated in: Ireland

St. John's Eve (Spain)
June 23
La Víspera de San Juan in Spain is dedicated to water and fire. Fireworks displays are common and bogueras, or bonfires, are lit in the city of Alicante, as well as villages, hilltops, and fields. In the PyrÉnÉes, folk beliefs surround the bonfires and their charred remains, which are considered protection from thunderstorms. Cinders from the fires can also be mixed with the newly sown crops or put in the garden to ensure rapid growth. In other places people believe that cabbages planted on St. John's Eve will come up within 24 hours, and that beans will be ready by St. Peter's Day, six days later. Folkloric beliefs also focus on water. Walking through the dew or bathing in the sea on this day is believed to promote beauty and health.
Young girls traditionally believe that San Juan will help them see into their future. By placing a bowl of water outside the window and breaking an egg into it at midnight on St. John's Eve, they try to read their destiny in the shape the egg assumes. Similarly, pouring melted lead into a bowl of water at noon gives clues as to what kind of man they will marry.
In the province of Asturias, a dance known as the corri-corri is performed on St. John's Day by six women with one man pursuing them. The sexual motif of the dance links it to the fertility rites associated with Midsummer Day in ancient times. In the Basque region, men perform the bordón-danza, or sword dance, in two facing lines, wearing white shirts and breeches, red sashes and berets, and carrying long sticks in place of the traditional swords. The fact that this dance is performed most commonly on St. John's Day suggests a connection with ancient Summer Solstice rites.
Pastry shops in Spain sell special cakes shaped like the letter J on St. John's Eve, which may be decorated with pink sugar roses and elaborate scrolls.
Valencia Tourist Office
Communitat Valenciana, Aptdo. de Correos 48
Burjassot, 46100 Spain
34-902-123-212; fax: 34-902-220-211
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 157, 253
FestWestEur-1958, p. 199
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 399

Celebrated in: Spain

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.