Today it is Saint John’s Eve, the day before the feast of Saint John the Baptist. John was cousin to Jesus and the Bible tells us that he was six months older. So, we have his feast day now, around midsummer, because we have Christmas around midwinter. But most of the traditions associated with the celebration seem to have little to do with a desert-dwelling saint. Like some of our Christmas traditions, its pagan roots are definitely showing.
Saint John’s Eve was quite a significant celebration in Europe up until the nineteenth century. As Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the feast of Saint John was placed around the time of the Summer Solstice. We know that these days were significant in ancient times because many of our stone circles and burial chambers are aligned with the sunrise on those days.
Central to the Saint John’s Eve festivities was the bonfire, which was often built at the top of a hill. It was thought to offer protection from evil spirits who were generally on the loose at this time of year. In Sweden, for example, it was thought that, on this night, the mountains cracked open and trolls were set free. According to a thirteenth century monk from Winchcomb Abbey in Gloucestershire, the fires were built from bones instead of wood. Indeed the word bonfire is most likely a corruption of bone fire. The idea of building a fire of bones was to create as much foul-smelling smoke as possible. This, he says, was necessary to drive away dragons which it seems were a particular problem at this time of year. The whole difficulty with dragons at midsummer, was that this was the time that they gathered in the air to mate. This caused them to drop their ‘seed’ into rivers and wells which poisoned the water which was clearly awful. Though I would have thought that a dragon, of all things, would have been used to the smell of burning bones. Maybe they weren’t the fire-breathing kind.
A second tradition mentioned by the monk was rolling a wheel down a hill. The wheel, he tells us, “is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.” These kind of events feature in the Saint Johns Eve celebrations all over Northern Europe and sometimes the two were combined. If we skip to the sixteenth century, in the village of Konz, in the Moselle Valley, we find people rolling their bonfire down a hill. A wheel would be covered in brushwood or straw and set on fire at the top of the hill. It would then be guided down the slope by a couple of brave souls. The aim was to roll it into the river. It wasn’t easy as there were plenty of vineyards to negotiate on the way. If they succeeded, they were entitled to a wagon load of wine. If they failed, their cattle would be attacked by fits of giddiness and convulsions and would “dance in their stalls”.
Like other ceremonial fires, the smoke from a Saint John’s Eve bonfire was thought to protect livestock and the ashes were supposed to have protective qualities too. They could be taken away and buried it the fields to protect crops or placed in the eaves of a house to protect it from lightening or from fire in the following year.
Flower garlands were often an important part of the celebrations too. In some places they were cast onto the bonfire, in others they had to be rescued from the flames. I found that, in several areas of Germany, people believed that looking at the fire through a garland of flowers, particularly larkspur or mugwort, was supposed to protect one from eye diseases in the following year. I really can’t explain why protection against eye diseases in particular, should be a feature of this festival. The problems with dancing cattle and poisonous dragon sperm are equally opaque, but they don’t seem to have much to do with the story of John the Baptist.