Jun 24, 2012

La Fete de la St.-Jean

The flower cross of St. Jean 

In the Dordogne a few summers ago, on June 24th, for the occasion of La Fete de La St. Jean, a friend of mine invited me to his house. When I arrived, I noticed a cross of wildflowers hung where the peephole would be on any city dweller’s front door. I asked him about it and he told me it was a tradition on this day to gather wild flowers and fashion crosses from them. They were then attached to houses and barns to protect the inhabitants. I could tell, however, that despite the emblem on his door, my friend was a little miffed about something.

Turns out while he had gone to the trouble of gathering real wild flowers from the hills behind his house, some of his neighbors had taken the easy way out and plucked generic garden flowers from their back yards. 

I asked him if it really mattered.

“Isn’t the sentiment the same?”

“NON!” he bellowed. “You must frolic in the hills and celebrate the liberty and freedom of finding the flowers, then you make the cross.”

In order to understand the tradition of La Fete de la St. Jean, we have to back up and talk Celtics (and I am not referring to the NBA team from Boston).

Parading through Ste Maxime 
The Celts were a group of people that inhabited much or Europe and Asia minor in pre-Roman times, and by 450 BC, had settled in France, bringing with them their culture, language and their rituals, one of which was the celebration of Summer Solstice.

Summer was, and still is, thought to be a time of magic. For some of us it's beach and BBQ magic, for others it’s vacation and send the kids to summer camp magic. To the ancient Celts it was a time when evil spirits were said to appear. To ward them off, the Celts gathered magical plants and healing herbs, like Saint John's Wort and Vervain, along with wild flowers. Bright bonfires were lit and dancers adorned in garlands made from these herbs and flowers would circle the fire and leap through the flames. I guess they didn’t wear polyester back then.

Pride parades through Ste. Maxime
As is the case with many Christian rituals and celebrations, this pagan summer celebration, held on the  21st of June, was taken and transformed into La Fête de la Saint-Jean, a celebration of Saint John the Baptist, and moved to the 24th of June.

Saint-Jean the Baptist Day has been a very important event in France, and before the French revolution, on the night between the 23rd and 24th, the king himself used to light a great Saint-Jean bonfire.

Lighting of  Le Feu de St. Jean
The bonfire tradition continues today as part of the celebration, but also as a symbol of peace, fraternity and community. In each village, municipality, and city in France, on the same night, this flame is lit, tethering citizens to their past while extending a spirit of hope into their future. It’s unifying and admittedly kind of cool. People still dance around the flames, though I don’t think anyone jumps through them anymore. If they do, I’ll let you know.

True story---While writing this post, my phone rang. It was my friend from the Dordogne. Having finally purchased a mobile phone, he called me from the top of the hill behind his house to tell me he was gathering flowers for the cross.  He was huffing and puffing, and I could hear the “air” of outside-ness over the line.

 “Will you email me a photo?” I asked.

“Yes, but I have to ask my son to show me how to do it,” he said.

 I smiled.

I’m glad to know that even as technology bullets us believably forward, some traditions stay rooted in the past, high atop a hill of flowers where they belong.

I'll be celebrating tonight in Ste Maxime. I'll post photos tomorrow. And if I ever get that photo from my friend, I'll post it too.


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