Yesterday marked la Fête de la Saint-Jean, which occurs on 24th June each year, although the festivities normally take place the night before. It’s a not uncommon example of a pagan celebration taken over by the Catholic Church to commemorate the birth date of John the Baptist. The origins go back to the ancient Phoenicians and Syrians, who celebrated the summer solstice. Revellers lit a ritual bonfire, symbolising purification and rebirth, and invoked fertility and abundance for the coming year.
Burning to get together
In France, La Fête de la Saint-Jean became associated with youth and rites of passage to adulthood. A King and Queen of Youth were elected and crowned for the year. Everyone attended a mass in the morning and sang the Hymn to Saint Jean. In the evening, the villagers set light to a huge bonfire constructed with firewood collected by young people during the previous week. In some places, such as the Pyrénées, a tall pine trunk was erected in the middle of the bonfire.
The fête provided an opportunity for young people to get together and was one of the most popular events of the year. Young men jumped over the embers to prove their virility. Young women sometimes leapt over the bonfire, too. Don’t try this at home.
The evening ended with a bal, or dance, and much singing and musical entertainment. A popular song of the 1940s evokes the spirit of the festivities. ‘Mon amant de Saint-Jean’ was composed in 1942. It tells the story of a young woman who goes to the Saint-Jean ball and falls hopelessly in love with a cynical seducer. With its lilting waltz rhythm, it was a great success at the time. The chorus goes:
Moi qui l’aimais tant,
Mon bel amour, mon amant de Saint-Jean
Il ne m’aime plus, C’est du passé, N’en parlons plus
I loved him so much,
My handsome love, my lover of St. John’s Eve.
He doesn’t love me anymore; it’s in the past; we won’t talk of it again.
You can hear it here, sung in 1943 by Lucienne Delyle, one of the most popular singers of her generation, rather in the style of Piaf.
In Paris, the Saint-Jean bonfire was built in the Place de Grève. Bonfires were habitually lit there to execute hapless folk condemned for sorcery or heresy. The king of France lit the fire, a tradition which lasted until Louis XIV did it for the last time in 1648.
The fête tradition continues undiminished today and many villages throughout France celebrate it. Friends described to us what happens in their small hamlet. The whole village is involved in setting up the fête. This includes collecting wood for the fire and building it, putting out tables and chairs, cleaning and firing up the ancient barbecue with logs and preparing the feast.
The 20 or so villagers are joined by an equal number of relatives from nearby, children and adults. Everything starts around 8 p.m. with an apéritif, followed by an ample meal, the centrepiece of which is a vast sausage cooked on the barbecue. Around 11.30 p.m. they light the fire, wait till it dies down and then take turns to jump the red hot cinders. Any injuries sustained are numbed by the eau de vie served back at the tables.
Incidentally, the time to pick walnuts to make vin de noix is around the festival of Saint-Jean. This is when the nuts are still unripe and encased in their green outer shells. The whole thing is used to make the wine.
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