La St-Jean in France


In Brittany, apparently, the custom of the midsummer bonfires is kept up to this day. When the flames have died down, the whole assembly kneels round about the bonfire and an old man prays aloud. Then they all rise and march thrice round the fire; at the third turn around the fire, the assembly stops and every one picks up a pebble and throws it on the burning pile. After that, those in the assembly disperse.

.  In Brittany and Berry, it is believed that a girl who dances round nine midsummer bonfires, will marry within the year.

. In the Valley of the Orne, the custom was to kindle the bonfire just at the moment when the sun was about to dip below the horizon; and then, peasants drove their cattle through the fires to protect them against witchcraft, especially against the spells of witches and wizards who attempted to steal the milk and butter.

.  At Jumièges in Normandy (down to the first half of the nineteenth century), the midsummer festival was marked by certain singular features which bore the stamp of a very high antiquity. Every year, on the twenty-third of June (the Eve of ‘La St-Jean’), the Brotherhood of the Green Wolf chose a new chief or master (who had always to be taken from the hamlet of Conihout.

On being elected, the new head of the brotherhood assumed the title of the Green Wolf.  He then donned a peculiar costume consisting of a long green mantle and a very tall green hat (of a conical shape and without a brim). Thus arrayed, the new Green Wolf stalked solemnly at the head of the brothers, chanting the hymn of St-Jean; the crucifix and holy banner leading the way to a place called Chouquet.

Once they got to Chouquet, the procession was met by the priest, presenters, and choir who conducted the brotherhood to the parish church. After hearing mass, the company adjourned to the house of the Green Wolf where a simple meal was served up to them. At night, a bonfire was kindled to the sound of hand-bells by a young man and a young woman (both decked with flowers).

Then the Green Wolf and his brothers, with their hoods down on their shoulders and holding each other by the hand, ran round the fire after the man who had newly been chosen to be the Green Wolf that following year. Though only the first and the last man of the chain had a hand free, their business was to surround and seize thrice the new Green Wolf.

In his efforts to escape, the new Green Wolf belaboured the brothers with a long wand which he carried.  When at last they succeeded in catching him, they carried him to the burning pile and made as if they would throw him on it.  This ceremony over, they returned to the house of the Green Wolf; where a supper, still of the most meagre fare, was set before them.

Up till midnight, a sort of religious solemnity prevailed. But at the stroke of twelve, all this was changed. Constraint gave way to license; pious hymns were replaced by Bacchanalian ditties.  And the shrill of quavering notes off the village fiddle hardly rose above the roar of voices that went up from the merry brotherhood of the Green Wolf.

Next day, the twenty-fourth of June (or Midsummer Day), was celebrated by the same personages with the same noisy gaiety. One of the ceremonies consisted in parading to the sound of musketry; and an enormous loaf of consecrated bread, which, rising in tiers, was surmounted by a pyramid of verdure adorned with ribbons. After that, the holy hand-bells (deposited on the step of the altar) were entrusted as insignia of office to the man who was to be the Green Wolf during this next year.

.  At Château-Thierry, in the department of Aisne, the custom of lighting bonfires and dancing round them at the midsummer festival of St-Jean – lasted down to about 1850.  The fires were kindled especially when June had been rainy, and the people thought that the lighting of the bonfires would cause the rain to cease.

. In the Vosges, in the East of France, it is still customary to kindle bonfires upon the hill-tops on Midsummer Eve.  The people believe that the fires help to preserve the fruits of the earth and ensure good crops.

. In Poitou, on the Eve of St-Jean, bonfires were lit in almost all the hamlets there.  People marched round them thrice, carrying a branch of walnut in their hand. Shepherdesses and children passed sprigs of mullein (verbascum) and nuts across the flames.  The nuts were supposed to cure toothache, and the mullein to protect the cattle from sickness and sorcery.

When the fire died down, people took some of the ashes home with them; either to keep them in the house as a preservative against thunder or to scatter them on the fields for the purpose of destroying corn-cockles and darnel.

Also in Poitou, it used to be customary on the Eve of St-Jean, to trundle a blazing wheel wrapped in straw over the fields to fertilize them.

. In the mountainous part of Comminges, a province of Southern France, the midsummer fire is made by splitting open the trunk of a tall tree, stuffing the crevice with shavings, and igniting the whole. A garland of flowers is fastened to the top of the tree, and at the moment when the fire is lighted the man who was last married has to climb up a ladder and bring the flowers down.

In the flat parts of the same district, the materials of the midsummer bonfires consist of fuel piled in the usual way; but they must be put together by men who have been married since the last midsummer festival; and each of these benedicts is obliged to lay a wreath of flowers on the top of the pile.

.  In Provence, the midsummer fires are still popular. Children go from door to door begging for fuel, and they are seldom sent empty away. Formerly the priest, the mayor, and the aldermen used to walk in procession to the bonfire, and even deigned to light it; after which the assembly marched thrice round the burning pile.

. At Aix, a nominal king, chosen from among the youth for his skill in shooting at a popinjay, presided over the midsummer festival. He selected his own officers, and escorted by a brilliant train, marched to the bonfire, kindled it, and was the first to dance round it. Next day he distributed largesse to his followers.

His reign lasted a year, during which he enjoyed certain privileges. He was allowed to attend the mass celebrated by the commander of the Knights of St-Jean on St-Jean’s Day; the right of hunting was accorded to him; and soldiers might not be quartered in his house.

. At Marseilles, also on this day, one of the guilds chose a king of the badache or double axe; but it does not appear that he kindled the bonfire, which is said to have been lighted with great ceremony by the préfet and other authorities.

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

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