Summer Solstice Celebrations in France

Today, Friday 24 June, is in France the day we celebrate St. John the Baptist and it is also an opportunity to celebrate the Feux de la Saint-Jean.

This tradition, which dates back to ancient times, most likely originated in Asia Minor and was introduced to Eastern Europe by the Celtic tribes 3000 years ago. Feux de la Saint-Jean was originally the celebration of the Summer Solstice on June 21st. The ancients use to light bonfires on the previous evening in honour of the Sun, a way to pray for its protection for the harvest to come.

feux de la saint-jean bonfire
Image credit

Why 24th June?

The Summer Solstice occurs on June 21st so why do we French celebrate it on June 24th?

When Christianity became France’s official religion during the 5th, there was no question of allowing pagan rites to thrive. The traditions, though, were so deeply entrenched among the French population that the Church of Rome moved the celebration to coincide with the feast of St. John the Baptist.

This decision was ingenious because the two festivals are both carriers of the symbol of Light. One celebrates the Sun, the other celebrates the prophet John the Baptist who opens the door to the light by announcing the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. It was so easy to superimpose the two festivals!

The celebration of Feux de la Saint-Jean was very popular until the revolution and then slowly sank into oblivion. For the last two decades, though, the French have seemed happy to reconnect with their traditions and rediscover their roots and regional identity.

Feux de la Saint-Jean celebrations are becoming more and more popular, especially in rural areas where life is modelled on the rhythm of the seasons and the weather. The festival is the celebration of Youth and more and more parishes organize games and rites of passage practiced by our ancestors.

How we celebrate

Thus, a huge bonfire is lit on the evening of June 23rd with firewood and logs that young people had to go begging from house to house during the week preceding the festival. One of the most traditional rites is when young unmarried people have to jump over the bonfire if they want to find their soul mate before the end of the year.

It is also a rite of passage and acceptance for younger teenagers who then become officially accepted into the group of bachelors. The games end with the election of the King and Queen of Youth for the year to come.

This festival has remained deeply anchored in our traditions because it is a merry celebration, but above all it is the Festival of Youth at the peak of Summer, a symbol of life…

…and as with most French festivals, Feux de la Saint-Jean always ends with a dance because we French are primarily bon viveur!

Read more:
A Magical Midsummer Night: San Juan celebrations in Spain
Ancestor worship in Okinawa, Japan
Not the 1st January: New Year celebrations around India

About the author

I am French Parisienne and lived in Asia for nearly 20 years before settling in the UK 3 years ago. I have an interest in everything and every culture and am an avid reader. French linguistics is my "specialty" but I have a passion for history and try to mingle them. Humour is very important to me, I love writing, talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, learning more from others... the world is full of fascinating people! I never leave my home without my camera, there is always something unusual, beautiful or strange to capture. I like to pay attention to details, to the world of the "small", a parallel world if you take the time to look for it...And above all, I love my country of birth, France.
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  • I lived for a few years in Barcelona, where 23rd June is celebrated as ‘San Juan’. There also it’s traditional to jump over fires, although they are not big fires like the one in the photo! It’s a very noisy night as well, because people like to set off firecrackers.

    We don’t have any such celebration in the UK… maybe one bonfire night per year is enough!

  • DeeBee

    Hello Liz,
    Thanks for your commnent.
    Spanish and french have very similar traditions with slight variations. i think it comes from our common Celtic origins as most deeply rooted pagan celebrations were introduced by them. As i wrote in the post, when France became Christian the Church of Rome realised that the old beliefs will stay for ever, so they superimposed their festivals on the pagans’. St Juan is obviously St-John the Baptiste.
    This is a fascinating topic!
    UK? they’ve got good celebrations as well…a pity about the weather though :)

  • That’s what my husband says… he lived in the UK for a few years and hated the weather!

  • DeeBee

    I can relate to this!

  • really interesting… we have something similar here too, but in march!

  • I think Barcelona, especially, would have similar traditions to France. When I was there, so many Catalan festivals and dances reminded me much more of France than of stereotypical Spain.

    I love, though, how this festival was altered by the church, disappeared, and now seems to be returning to its original form. What an amazing spirit.

  • DeeBee

    Thanks to both of you Anu and Kelly for your comments :)

    Hello Anu: I think most celebrations have a similar origins that goes back to dawn of humanity and have been spread through the continents as the tribes were going their own way. I find this fascinating as it all goes back to one original point.

    Hi Kelly: French people seem to be willing to rediscover their traditions, may be a way of emerging from this “mass anonymity”.
    And yes it’s amazing, the “pagan spirit” seems to have been dormant for centuries but resurfaces as people distance themselves from the “catholic church” as it is a too restrictive and severe religion (In France, i don’t know about other countries).

  • How interesting the Youth Festival! I would like to watch it in person and the Netherlands are not far from France ;-)
    In Portugal we also celebrate “Festas de Sao Joao” (June, 24), specially in Oporto (North of Portugal), but I was never there by the occasion.
    Thanks for sharing this! I like France very much! :-)

  • My mum told me they used to celebrate la Noche de San Juan when she was a child in Argentina. I’m sure the Spaniards introduced that tradition but it unfortunately died out, at least in the big cities.

    Do you eat special dishes on that day?

  • DeeBee

    Sandra: Yes this Youth Festival is really fun, a lot of laugh and entertainment! A lot of good memories to cherish when you are adult! Thanks for your comment. :)

    Ana: It’s a pity the tradition disappeared but it might make a come back, who knows?
    It’s less celebarted in big cities as well in france because of the lack of place and potential danger…
    We don’t have any special food though, just a big BBQ but nothing in particular.