St-John’s in French-Canada

To this day, French Canadians observe the St-John’s festivities on his birthday; which is on June 24th. St-John’s birthday coincides with the Midsummer Day of the old religion. It is also the highlight of the old Breton’s Witches year.

As Celtics, the French-Canadians call that day ‘La Saint-Jean-Baptiste’. Because, when they left France, back in the 17th century, the french brought over with them their old world tradition of celebrating ‘Saint-Jean’. Since then, it is the Celts in the province of Quebec that have mainly been those to continue on with the celebrations of ‘La Saint-Jean’, each year. After all, Saint-Jean-Baptiste is their patron saint, in Canada.

By tradition and by culture, the French in Canada are Roman-Catholics. Way back when their ancestors were still living in Brittany, the old gods got transmuted by the conquering Christians of that time. Hence, St-John’s birthday celebrations replaced the Midsummer Day sabbath of the old gods. And then down through the centuries, the Breton’s who came to live in Canada (in Quebec and in Acadie) continued the traditional gathering of the assembly around bonfires; with their dancing and their singing around the fire – into the night, on the Eve of La Saint-Jean – and throughout all the next day.

In this way, they kept vigil against the prankster spirits who tried to dampen the joy in the celebration of the Summer Solstice. So to keep the bonfires going, the men in assembly would throw logs and whatever else they no longer wanted into the bonfires. From the first mountain-top to the next, the men of the parish would light-up their bonfires, – one after the other.  The bonfires were a signal to those who could see it, that there lived souls that were still safe from the evil spirits of that night. And, when the people of the next mountain looked-out into the darkness to see if they were all alone or not, they could spot other fires out-there; and they would say to those among their own assembly: “the souls of the people living over there are surviving.

On the flip side of the coin, the bells and food of the Midsummer Day Sabbath celebrations (la Saint-Jean), would draw prankster spirits who would pull practical jokes on the people of the bells. Hence, a vigil to protect the souls!

Against all winds, the Quebecois people still light their traditional bonfires; and they still hold vigil on the Eve of St-John’s birthday. From one parish to the next, the bonfires of the Bretons (at least still in Quebec) commune.

Taken and adapted from:  International Holiday & Festival Primer, by David DeRocco, Joan Dundas, Ian Zimmerman


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