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.
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!
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