The Origins of the Charming French Fire Festival

The “Fête de la Saint Jean” is celebrated every June 24th throughout France.

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I’m always fascinated by how customs and holidays that we take for granted have very interesting origins that we have forgotten with time.  Learning about how our ancestors lived their daily lives, what was important to them, and how they celebrated helps us understand who we are today.

The Pagan Festival of the Celts

RussiaAs is so often the case, we find pagan origins in the Fête de la Saint Jean. This time it is from Russia, long before Christendom was born. A few days before the summer solstice worshipers of the celtic pagan god “Ivan Kupalo (Sun God) gathered around a large bonfire (Fire = Sun) thanking their God for the fertility of their lands.  Celtic fire festivals

 

Virgin revelers wore crowns of flowers, throwing bouquets of fragrant herbs into the fire.  Purifying midnight baths taken in the nearby rivers were meant to cleanse the soul.  Singing, dancing, and general revelery making followed the pagan festival.

 

The Christian Festival of our Ancestors

When Christendom adopted the festival, they replaced Ivan Kupolo the Sun God with Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Jesus’s cousin who was beheaded on the order of the Palestinian King Herod). As Ivan = Jean, and Kupalo = bathing, it was a perfect fit. The date June 24th is Saint-Jean-Baptiste’s birthday.

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A huge bonfire was built in the village center using branches, dead leaves, and old bits of broken furniture gathered over the past year.  The top of the pile would be decorated with a bouquet of flowers, either in a crown or cross shape.  Motherwort, a herb known for its abilities to chase away evil and bring good luck, was used instead of flowers in some regions.  The pile was then lit most often by the village priest simply because of all the superstitions surrounding the festival.  If that wasn’t possible then it was lit either by the builder of the pile himself, the oldest elder of the village (as is the case in Sénas), the latest married couple, or by an (attractive) young maiden. Farms often had their own personal bonfires as they could be quite a distance from the neighboring villages.  In the town of Aix-en-Provence, they would actually have two bonfires : one both in the city center at the Place des Prêcheurs, and one on top of the nearby Sainte-Victoire mountain range.

The purifying midnight baths although lost to us now, were at this time still customary.  In Arles they simply accomplished the cleansing by jumping into the Rhone River.  Alternately, buckets of water could be thrown from the windows to rain down upon the passersby.  My boys would have loved that !!!  In Marseille they instead used buckets of ocean water from the port to throw onto their bystanders.    Which reminds me of one summer long ago in Paris when my eldest threw a water balloon down from the 5th floor onto a poor lady that was passing by below… It was in June, does that count for a purifying bath ?  The water is said to bring good luck and have miraculous healing properties, so I’m sure that lady was extremely grateful to my boy.

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There were many superstitions around the occasion…

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  • For the brave and not very intelligent, jumping over the dying fire guaranteed you a marriage by year-end (“Celui qui saute le feu de la Saint-Jean se mariera dans l’année !”).
  • For the more reasonable, parading around the fire several times made you look like an idiot but promised you true love for the rest of the year .
  • For those more interested in money than love, throwing in a coin into the fire and retrieving it later from the ashes insured you riches all year-long.
  • If you just wanted a good harvest, throwing in a rock that you retrieved later and buried in your fields  assured you the best crop ever (the  bigger the rock, the bigger the harvest).
  • You could also throw some garlic heads into the fire and then feed the roasted cloves to your kids to keep them from getting sick all year-long.
  • If you wanted to cure grandpa from rheumatism, you would just have him jump over the fire one leg at a time (the alternate being too risky!).
  • On the other hand, if a back ache from working the fields was your issue, then you just needed to ask your comrades to suspend you over the fire a few minutes (lightly roasted, not too dark please).
  • Passing your baby over the fire nine times made sure he grew up strong and healthy.  Fete de la Saint Jean Bretagne
  • If you were being chased by evil spirits, then you definitely wanted jump over the fire as it was a sure way to drive them off.
  • In Brittany, in the town of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt (the finger), the priest would bring out their most precious religious relic.  It consisted of the finger of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and placing it on whatever was ailing for a miraculous cure.  Anne of Bretagne cured her eyesight in this manner.
  • You didn’t want to forget to grab a hot ember to take it home either (these special embers reportedly wouldn’t burn), as placing the ember in the armoire protected you from house fires and lightning (sounds counter-intuitive to me).
  • Finally, taking home some ashes was also useful as it protected you from acne and other skin troubles.

 

The evening always finished with lots of dancing and singing throughout the night.  In Brittany, even the defunct (deceased) are invited…chairs were placed around the fire for the spirits to come and join in the fun.

To learn about the modern-day festival, take a peek at my previous blog “Nothing but bonfires all across France”.

Happy Travels,
-Girl Gone Gallic

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