Saint John’s Day Customs in France

Albi - Nuit Pastel Fireworks

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.

Continuing tradition

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.

Walnut

Unripe walnut 

You might also like:

Saint Catherine’s Day Customs
All fêted out
French Solstice Customs

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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9 Responses to Saint John’s Day Customs in France

  1. Oh, thank you for this posting, Vannessa. Your blog is such a welcome relief from all the “lifestyle” blogs. sincerely, david terry, Rougemont, NC. USA

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We don’t have lifestyles down here in la France profonde! You only have to see the interior of my house for that to be evident…We do have a lot of history and many interesting customs, though, and that’s what I like to write about. I’m pleased you like it.

      Like

  2. MELewis says:

    I have never seen an unripened walnut before and had no idea it was used to make wine. Sadly, I think the celebrations around Saint Jean are increasingly replaced by Fête de la Musique.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Osyth says:

      Nip down to Grenoble, Mel – the vin noir is delicious and abundant (ours comes from a friend of the Brains who is about 90 years old and has been making it since boyhood …. very very strong and leaves one feeling delightfully mellow 😉)

      Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      Really? Do you not have walnut trees where you are? Vin de noix is more like a fortified wine, since it contains a mixture of red wine, vieille prune and a frightening amount of sugar – and the walnuts, of course. It’s all left to steep and the walnuts are then removed. It’s quite pleasant, but a little goes a long way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Osyth says:

    In Cantal they very often put a whole tree in the middle and decide the fate of the next year according to whether it falls or stays standing by the time the embers are jumpable. When I asked the Maire what it meant that the tree was still standing the first year we lived there he twinkled, shrugged and said ‘best make up your own mind than have a tree decide your fate, non?’ He is from near paris and moved to Cantal some decades ago … I think he was as confused as we were!!

    Liked by 3 people

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