Saint John’s fire is originally a pagan tradition celebrating the Summer Soltice, the longest night of the year usually on 21 June.
This tradition dates back to pagan times and most likely originated in Asia Minor like Syria or even Russia .The Celts introduced it to Western Europe several millennia ago.
Pagan folk lit bonfires on the evening before the Summer Solstice in honor of the Sun, to get its protection for the harvest to come. The meaning of the celebration often relates to popular beliefs of keeping the evil forces away. That is why medicinal plants such as fennel, rosemary, lemon verbena, Saint John’s wort or Yarrow is burnt on the day or the night before Saint John.
It is still celebrated across some parts of the world like Brazil, Northern and Southern Europe, mainly in the rural countryside. The dates vary between 21 and 24 June depending on the country. In some countries the celebrations span over the same period. It is usually celebrated with bonfires.
In Estonia for instance, it is custom during the Jaaniõhtu festival to burn old fishing boats in some islands of the country. Similar traditions are also common in Sweden and other Baltic countries.
In Southern Europe, Spain, Italy and Croatia also celebrate similar rituals. In Croatia for instance, the feast called ‘’ivanje’ is celebrated on the 23 June and young people are invited to jump over the flames.
Why do the French celebrate on 24 June?
The Summer Solstice occurs on 21 June in Europe, so why do French celebrate on 24 June?
Christianity became France’s official religion during the 5th Century, and there was no chance of allowing pagan rites to survive! Ancient traditions however, were deeply rooted among rural folk. The Church of Rome therefore moved the pagan Summer Solstice celebration in order to coincide with St-John the Baptist Day. This decision was smart, because both festivals carry the symbol of light. The pagans celebrate the Sun, the Christians the prophet John the Baptist who symbolically opened the door to the light by announcing the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.
Whilst these traditions are dying, they remain much alive in many parts of the world. To preserve the Saint John’s fire tradition, les feux de la Saint Jeans have been listed as part of the immaterial UNESCO cultural heritage around the Pyrennees region.
Within France, the meaning of the burning of fire may vary depending on the region. For instance, it is custom to sing around the fire in Brittany, to swing a child above the fire to allow them to develop quickly, to turn oneself around the fire to avoid lower back pains or even find a wife or husband. Burning old furniture is also part of this old custom.
How did our ancestors celebrate Summer Solstice?
They lit a huge bonfire on the evening of 23 June, with wood and logs that young people collected from house to house during the week preceding the festival. One of the most traditional rites was indeed for young unmarried people to jump over the bonfire if they wanted to find their soul mate before the end of the year! It was also a rite of passage and acceptance for younger teenagers, who then became officially accepted into the group of bachelors. The games ended with the election of the King and Queen of Youth for the year to come.
The celebration of Feux de la Saint Jean was very popular until the French Revolution, then slowly sank into oblivion. However, French people today seem quite happy to reconnect with ancient traditions and rediscover their roots and regional identity. Les Feux de la Saint Jean - Summer Solstice celebrations are therefore becoming more popular each year. This is evident in rural areas, where life's rhythm is still largely dictated by the passing of the seasons and weather. The festival is a happy celebration, the celebration of Youth and Life that takes place at the peak of Summer.