St. John’s Eve: ferns, and fires, and flesh: oh my!

St. John’s Eve in Russia was, and still is in some parts of the country, celebrated with the traditional focus on fire and water: elements, like Jesus and John, who stand in direct opposition. At dusk (which comes very late this time of the year), huge bonfires are lit to guard against the evil spirits, witches, goblins, and other fey creatures who, as the world turns to darkness again, begin to gain in strength and power.

Photos by Konstantin Zavrazhin, RG



Men compete against one another to see who can jump the highest over the bonfire, ensuring the winner happiness and luck throughout the year. Young women gather the traditional “Midsummer ferns,” which are woven into garlands and wreaths, worn throughout the evening and then dried, and kept to ward off evil spirits throughout the coming darkness. In another long-standing tradition, young women float their wreaths of Midsummer ferns with lit candles into the river, and the one, which floats the longest, ensures its maker happiness in love, long life, and good health.

In the Christian calendar, however, it had a rather sober beginning. St. John’s Eve celebrates the night before the birth of Jesus’s cousin, St. John. Scripture tells us that John was about six months older than, and “prepared the way” for Jesus, so that fits nicely: if you buy in to the idea that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 7th according to the Russians). St. John’s Eve, and its counterpart in the calendar, Christmas, are actually, as Alexander Hislop argues convincingly, replacements for much older pagan rituals surrounding the juxtaposition of light and dark. Jesus’s birth was set by the early Christians to replace the pagan Saturnalia or Winter Solstice, when the days begin to get lighter; John’s birthday replaced the Summer Solstice, when the days begin to grow darker. This neatly captures the "twinned" or juxtaposed relationship between John and Jesus.

St. John, a wild and zealous desert preacher, rigid and ascetic in his beliefs, was a thorn in the side of both the Romans and the Jewish King Herod. John publicly denounced Herod for his marriage to his brother’s widow, Herodias. John condemned this as adulterous and incestuous. King Herod, famously beheaded John at the request of his step-daughter (so also niece) Salome, after she did a very effective dance of the seven veils for his guests. The head, then, is served up on a platter.

St. John remains a shadowy and puzzling figure, associated historically with controversial and secretive organizations such as The Knights Templar and the Freemasons, at the heart of bloodline conspiracy theories, and mysterious symbols and hidden messages in art and literature. The fact that his birth, and not his death (August 19th in the Catholic calendar) is the key holiday is also significant, since most saints are celebrated on the day of their martyrdom or death, and not the birth. Jesus and John are not.

As the night lengthens on St. John’s Eve, and a brief darkness hovers over the Northern sky, tradition says that the trees move about and speak to one another in the breeze, and the important water element is incorporated by naked bathing in ponds, rivers and streams to purify both the body and the soul.

Things can begin to get slightly out of hand, which is wonderfully captured in Nikolai Gogol’s breakthrough short story “St. John’s Eve,” which you can download here, and Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” which might sound strangely familiar to any of you with small children.

As I wrote in a recent article on Russian superstitions, witches will not come into your house if there is a needle or something sharp in the doorjamb or other portals to the house. This is particularly true on St. John’s Eve, so housewives scatter thistles or roses on their windowsills to keep the witches at bay. It is very important (My daughter Velvet, are you listening?) to lock up your horses on St. John’s Eve, lest the witches or goblins spirit them away...to Bald Mountain! If a girl collects seven different kinds of flowers and puts them under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband. If you climb over twelve garden fences during St. John’s Eve, your wish will come true.

Can you find a garden fence you could actually climb over in Russia?

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