St John’s eve: ancient rituals to mark midsummer
Saint John’s Eve, starting at sunset on 23 June, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke states that John was born six months before Jesus, therefore, the feast of John the Baptist was fixed on 24 June, six months before Christmas according to the old Roman calculation. This feast day is one of the very few saints’ days which commemorates the anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of the saint being honored.
The Feast of Saint John closely coincides with the June solstice, also referred to as Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite Christian holy day is fixed at 24 June, in most countries festivities are mostly held the night before, on Saint John’s Eve, an holiday celebrated in many places.
Of course, the days surrounding the summer solstice abound with legends, divinations and rituals involving water, plants, and fire. Throughout mostly rural areas of Europe, the night between June 23 and June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist, his nativity, is marked by festivals and bonfires, flaming wheels rolling down mountainsides, ritualistic smoke purification of livestock, the burning of aromatic herbs to ward off evil and promote physical health and more. In Italy, at the center of this heady mix of symbolism and ritual, witches and fairies, nature spirits and Christian saints, herbal remedies, a fantastic ritual with white eggs and water, potions and even the malocchio, is the curious secular tradition of gathering still-green walnuts to make the “witch liquor” known as nocino.
Fire is the most typical element associated with the Saint John’s Eve celebration.
In many countries bonfires are lit on the evening of 23 June for people to jump over.
For istance in Croatia, where the feast called Ivanje (Ivan being Croatian for John), bonfires (Ivanjski krijesovi) are built on the shores of lakes, near rivers or on the beaches for the young people to jump over the flames. The Danes, instead, often meet with family and friends to have dinner together. If the weather is good, they then proceed to a local bonfire with the effigy of a witch on top, lit around 10 pm. 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, the highest peak of the Harz mountain range and also the highest peak of Northern Germany. To keep the evil forces away, the bonfires were usually lit on high ground.
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.Many towns and cities have “Midsummer Carnivals”, with fairs, concerts and fireworks, around the same time. Curious fact, in County Cork in southwest Ireland & County Louth in Northeast Ireland the night is commonly referred to as bonfire night and is among the busiest nights of the year for the fire services!
On the eve of St John, herbs are believed to possess especially strong healing powers. It is not a coincidence if many aromatics are harvested this time of year, having just flowered, with aromas at their most intense. Herbs and aromatics to gather on St John’s eve include St John’s wort, wormwood, verbena, elderberry, lavender, mint, rosemary, garlic and onion.
Since medieval times, St. John’s Wort has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirits away.
Even fruits such as red currant and hawthorn berries are believed to protect against evil, if gathered on this day.
It is believed that some of these plants, if used in the preparation of a beverage, bring not only physical benefits but also spiritual salvation and protection bestowed from the saint himself.
One similar custom involves gathering dew directly from trees and plants on this night, with the resulting distillation purported to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and keep illness at bay. Another version, perhaps devised for the lazy, calls for leaving a cloth out overnight, the moisture from which is then wrung out in the morning.
Many St John-related rituals center on mating, nuptials, and marital harmony, given this night’s age-old association with male-female balance and harmony.
In one ritual, a young, yet-to-wed woman places three fava beans, one intact, one peeled, and one broken, under her pillow before going to sleep on this night, June 23. During the night she selects one without looking and learns her fate: the intact bean signifies riches, the half bean portends a mediocre destiny and the peeled bean, a bad omen. In another, the eating of snails, specifically their tentacles, on St John’s day grants men protection from misfortune and in particular from being made a cuckold: the snail tentacle, which resembles a horn, represents a kind of edible amulet against what’s known in Italian as “fare le corna”, a not-so-nice term for infidelity.