The custom of lighting bonfires on June 23, the eve of the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, is one of the most widespread of all traditional European folk customs. It is found from Ireland to Siberia and from the top of Norway to Algeria, propelled across this whole vast region by the same impulse, to call on the purifying and protective properties of fire to bless and protect individuals and communities. The dangers against which this protection was sought were those which were in former times all too rife in late summer: diseases given to humans by proliferating insects, plagues that affected livestock and crops, freak weather that could ruin a harvest, and the menace of marauding warriors, pirates and criminals, operating when conditions made mobility easiest. The date was a numinous one, occurring at the end of the summer solstice, just before, to the naked eye, the sun began to move again along the horizon as it rose and set, commencing the long journey to its restricted midwinter positions.
These associations of the date, and custom, were bound into former realities of human life and the natural cycle, so obvious and pressing that they could be assimilated to any religious system. This is very much what happened. Fire rites of the sort carried on at this date are recorded in ancient times: that of rolling a blazing wheel down a hillside into water, is mentioned in what is now France in the fourth century, as associated with a local pagan temple. They were at once apparently so necessary, and seemed so reassuring, that they were absorbed into medieval Christian culture with no difficulty, all across the Continent.
The end of the solstice period, on June 24, was dedicated to John the Baptist as a sign of his place of honour in the Christian story, to match the dedication of the end of the winter solstice to the feast of the Nativity, Christmas. To hold the traditional fire ceremonies on his eve detached them from the celebration of the saint itself, and they were never incorporated into the formal Church liturgy, although in some communities the local priest would bless the bonfire before it was lit. Instead the two ran happily alongside each other for the rest of the Middle Ages, and the fires were referred to colloquially both as those of midsummer, and as those of St John.
By the second half of that period, when local records are abundant enough to provide a good picture of what was going on, it is clear that they were kindled from top to bottom of English society. The king had his own, in Westminster Hall. Monks wrote approvingly of the blazes lit on nearby hillsides, one in Shropshire commenting that they were thought to drive away dragons, which he would have equated with demons. Bonfires were lit at dusk in the streets of London and other towns, and lamps hung outside front doors to add their brilliance to the falling night. Wealthy villagers made them before their houses and feasted their neighbours beside them. The largest urban centres staged parades of councillors, craft companies and watchmen, in splendid costumes and carrying pails of fire hung from poles. Model giants and monsters, hobby horses and biblical pageants accompanied some of them, and the marching people could be thousands strong, their pails producing continuous streams of flame.
It all afforded three comforts and pleasures at once: that of warding off evil and misfortune, that of providing dramatic visual spectacle, and that of communal merrymaking. From the huge urban processions to villagers dancing around a fire on their green, everybody could partake of these.
The religious upheavals of the 16th century, Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reform, had an uneven impact on the custom, across Europe. Catholicism continued to cherish the fires of St John’s Eve, and they still flourish in many of the provinces of that faith, including Irish towns and villages. Orthodox Christianity, if anything, remained even more fond of them, and Russians, on the night which they call “Ivana Kupala”, still don white clothes and flower crowns and hold festivity around them. So do the Lutheran peoples of Germany and Scandinavia.
Only where Calvinism had an impact did religious reform bring disapproval, but one of those was England, where the monarchs abandoned the fire in their hall on conversion, and the midsummer blazes retreated from most of England. They lingered in the northern uplands and the south-western peninsula until the 19th century, but were then forsaken like so many other traditional customs. The main Protestant fire festival was moved to Guy Fawkes Night, a new and explicitly anti-Catholic festival.
Today the blazes of St John’s Eve survive, or have been revived, at places in Cornwall and Northumberland. The belief in their protective qualities has gone as have (mercifully) most of the dangers against which they were lit. As a symbol of unity, however, they retain some power wherever they appear, bonding as they do pagan and Christian, and so many major branches of the Christian faith.
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