Johns, Eve of St
John's, Eve of St.
one of the most joyous festivals of Christendom during the Middle Ages, was celebrated on the eve of the birthday of John the Baptist (q.v.). From the account given of it by Jakob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie, 1, 578, 581, 583 sq.), it would appear to have been observed with similar rites in every country of Europe. Fires were kindled chiefly in the streets and market places of the towns, as at Paris, Metz, etc.; sometimes, as at Gernsheim, in the district of Mainz, they were blessed by. the parish priest, and prayer and praise offered until they had burned out; but, as a rule, they were secular in their character, and conducted by the laity themselves. The young people leaped over the flames, or threw flowers and garlands into them, with merry shoutings; songs and dances were also a frequent accompaniment. At a comparatively late period the very highest personages took part in these festivities. In England, we are told (see R. Chambers's Book of Days, June 24), the people on the Eve of St. John's were accustomed to go into the woods and break down branches of trees, which they brought to their homes and planted over their doors, amid great demonstrations of joy, to make good the prophecy respecting the Baptist, that many should rejoice in his birth. This custom was universal in England till the recent change in manners. Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John's Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of clay. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John's night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelve months come and knock at the church door in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connection between this dreary fancy and that of the soul's midnight ramble. The kindling of the fire, the leaping over or through the flames, and the flower garlands, clearly show that these rites are essentially of heathen origin, and of a sacrificial character. They are obviously connected with the sun and fire worship of the ancient heathen nations, particularly the Arians (comp. Agni, of the Hindus [q.v.]; Mittera, of the Persians; the vestal virgins, and the Roman festival of Palila), and the Celts, Germans, and Slavi. In old heathen. times, Midsummer and Yule (q.v.), the summer and winter solstices, were the two greatest and most widespread festivals in Europe. The Church of Rome, in its accommodating spirit, instead of abolishing the custom, yielded to popular feeling, and retained this heathen practice under the garb of a Christian name. See Khautz, De ritu ignis in natali S. Johannis accensi (Vienna, 1759); Paciandi, De cults S. Joannis Bapt. antiq. Chrt. (Rom. 1758); Ersch und Gruber, All. Encyklop. 2, 22, p. 265; F. Nork, Fest-Kalender (Stuttgard, 1847), p. 406. — Chambers, Cyclop. a.v.