The Fires Of St. John

Janske Ohne

June 24, 2011

Allan Stevo

From the darkest days of December, nature grows lighter.  These darkest days were the time that our ancestors long ago feared the evil they believed wandered the world during the the longest nights of the year.  When Christianity emerged in Europe, these darkest days surrounding the winter solstice were adopted for a celebration of the birth of God’s son.

Once the December solstice has come, we know that the days ahead of us are only getting longer, the hours of darkness shorter until we reach a counterpoint in the year. That counterpoint is today, just after the summer solstice, in the midst of a time when all nature rejoices at the long, long day.   St. John’s Day or simply “Jan” is how this day is referred to in Slovak.  From this counterpoint, all the way up until Christmas, that tide will change and the days will only get shorter and the nights longer.

We will not feel it from day to day because the changes are so small, but the march toward winter’s death has begun, nature’s trend in the direction of life has ceased.  Soon there will no longer be light in the sky from 4 a.m. or after 10 p.m. in Slovakia.  Nature will begin its march toward days where light at 8 a.m. will be a blessing and overcast skies the norm before turning into pitch black before 5 p.m.

Each year, the first Friday after Jan, older children, teenagers, 20-somethings, maybe even a few 30-somethings, anyone who is young and unmarried, will climb a hill near their village, the same hill they climb each year, carrying wood up the hill with them and they will build that wood into a great bonfire.  When darkness falls it will be lit. It will burn late into the night.  And all across the horizon others in other villages might be seen doing the same. Through the darkness little flares will suddenly appear and those that live there will be able to see that their friends in other villages along the valley and in the next valleys over are engaging in the same tradition.  This will happen tonight since Jan, June 24, falls on a Friday this year.

Slovak youth climb the nearest tall hill and light a fire.  Sometimes these are small, informal gatherings.  Sometimes these are events that many people of all ages might attend from the village and perhaps even from neighboring villages for this ceremonial lighting of a fire.  The Fires of St. John (janske ohne) is what they are called in Slovak, for it is with his feast day to which the Roman Catholic Church has decided to connect the turning point in nature, the brightest, longest of days, this day commemorating John the Baptist’s birth.  And the Church remembers the opposite, the darkest moments of nature and the turning point that comes from this, with the celebration of Christ – Christ Mass – Christmas.

Lighting this fire is not a religious act.  It’s a folk tradition, with a Christian name veneered over the top.  It’s a pagan tradition – pre-Christian.  For the people of this land understood that there was something strange about the summer solstice just as they understood that there was something strange about the winter solstice.  Let’s head north to a place even more affected by extremes in light and dark to learn more about the how St. John’s Day was perceived there in the past.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I was 19 years old when I walked into the Royal Shakespeare Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon and watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was masterful, a demonstration of how good Shakespeare done right can be.  Uninhibited.  Uncontrollable.  Fantastical.  Mystical. Dreamlike.  Light as the weight of flowing clothes that the buxom actress melted into during a dream sequence on stage. And I fell in love with what I saw.  So very well done.  And how happy I was to go to the local pub that night and to meet the cast.  The entire cast was there.  How raucous and irreverent the show was that they had put together.

Many of us see Shakespeare as the stodgy and proper bard of English Literature, but the cast and director of this play had tapped into something very much present just below the surface of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream – unrestrained sexuality, lust, desire, recklessness, and how people might behave if they could blame their recklessness on something or someone entirely out of their control.  The bard is not stodgy, far from it, but sometimes the actors who play his work can be stodgy, giving us an altered view of him as a writer.

The newspaper carried a story a few weeks later that I saw from London – a local nun was up in arms after she had taken her grade school students to see the same performance I had seen.  Lowered inhibitions is one of Shakespeare’s themes in this play.  The Bible encourages us to follow much different behavior.  Whether we decide to step away from the play and moralize by saying “that is evil” or “that is good” is a different story and not an argument that I choose to get into.

The theme of lowered inhibitions is an important topic and one not deserving of censorship or ridicule.  How well they played that idea that night and they did it so well that I to this day remember how it made me feel – a little bashful, but also, like any good interpretation, it shed light on a Shakespeare that I had not known prior.

Adults Only

I’ve taken to watching black and white movies and appreciating them for their writing.  If today’s American newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, then today’s American movies are written for a 2nd grade reading level.  I never realized how very simpleminded and oversimplified the scripts of our movies are today until I went back and started making my way through the AFI’s top 100 films of the last century.

When I praised the writing of some of these movies from America’s past to a 70 year old friend, he wryly commented “You mean they weren’t written for children?”  He wanted me to see how good things can be when they aren’t marketed only to a young audience.  Attracting the attention of children and teenagers seems to be what the writing of many movies is meant to do today.

But today’s writing sounds so stupid when I watch something from Hollywood in the 40s and then watch something from Hollywood this year.  It’s not just that it’s aimed at children, it’s aimed at as general of an audience as possible, which seems to include particularly low-functioning children.  That has zapped some of the beauty of film.

The idea that Shakespeare should be written for a child or that his themes should be tamed for a child seeks to zap the beauty of his work.  The idea that the culture around us should exist to have a G rating zaps the beauty of it, because we are such complex creatures who honestly cannot segment all of our feelings and life into G ratings, PG-13 ratings, and R ratings.  Culture ought not play to the lowest common denominator in a demographic that it hopes to reach.  It can do better.

Slovak culture can feel offensive to an American because what is decent, or at least acceptable in public, is not always confined to a G rating.  This isn’t Queen Victoria’s England.  And it’s not a Hollywood film trying to play to the lowest common denominator, because just below the surface of many folk traditions is something pagan and offensive to Christian sentiments.

But that’s life.  Life isn’t always cut and dried.  Early last century a man from Central Europe, a Viennese psychiatrist, born in the present-day Czech Republic began to tell the world how life was never as cut and dried as we perceive it to be.  Sigmund Freud was his name.  He insisted that there was much under the surface that we had not yet begun to understand.

The Fires Have a Practical History, not Just Spiritual

The mysticism of the past may have some value on it’s own that makes it credible even today.  What I’d like to look at are some of the practical aspects of the fires of St. John that are not mystical in nature and when looking at them, it appears that this tradition from the past still makes a lot of sense.

Very catholic, very religious Slovakia is, below the surface, quite pagan. One such demonstration are the Fires of St. John.  They are religious on the surface (mostly in name alone), pagan in practice.  Shakespeare sought to write about the wildness of the world at this time of year, and of course, he sought to entertain.  Simply saying that this time of year is sexual in Slovakia is inaccurate.  There’s surely less inhibition, whether that be because of the spirit world (a possible explanation for some), or just because the weather outside makes you feel like running though a meadow (a more plausible explanation in my mind) is not that relevant to me.

In the past, people came to describe the changes in the world around us in terms of spirits.  Three hundred years from now, all of us know-it-alls will be equally laughed at for our looney notions of “atoms” as the building blocks of the universe and “macronutrients” as the key to good nutrition.  Perhaps there’s something a little more wild about the world on Jan, and that past generations spoke of a spiritual presence on this day is not so odd to expect.

It’s also important to note that even those of us who are not pyromaniacs might have a fun time burning lots of wood and making a big bonfire.  We might have fun drinking with others in the village, having a party not for any real reason, just because.  We might have fun being part of the tradition.  We might have fun coming up with an extra reason to socialize with neighbors and their friends.  While there are plenty of tales about the meaning of the fires, more than anything else the reasons janske ohne are set ablaze each year is because they’re fun.  Even if there is no need for a Christian to chase spirits out of a village by lighting a fire, it’s fun to get together with friends and continue a tradition that you enjoy.  It’s an extra excuse for visiting  your ancestral village when you’re away or to celebrate the coming of a weekend in an atypical way.

There’s also some evidence that the ashes spread over the land from the Fires of St. John were believed to bless the land and to cause prosperity in the next growing season.  Sure, that sounds good to me, but there’s the practical aspect that ash contains some nutrients that are beneficial to plants and therefore can be good for basic fertilizing or dealing with overly acidic soil, as suggested at the Univeristy of Illinois Extension, but the Purdue Extension advises that gardeners not overdue it with the ash. It would make sense that once upon a time someone noticed that ash from the St. John’s fire was a good fertilizer and concluded that the reason it works is because it has mystical powers (the right chemical composition) that keeps away bad spirits (anything that causes a plant to be less vital) and brings a good harvest the next year.  Some traditions, even pseudo-religious traditions, emerged because someone realized they were beneficial in a practical way.

The celebration of janske ohne is like looking through a window into the past.  Most interesting is the thought processes. Maybe they weren’t always logical from our perspective today, but they made an institution of practices that were believed to be beneficial for the community.  They did so through thought processes that were natural to them at the time – which means that they talked of spirits and demons.

  • On top of that, a reason to light a big fire, running around the village, getting wild on St. John’s is, well, because half the guys in the village are named Jan, so with the Slovak tradition of name-days there’s bound to be a huge celebration.
  • It’s good to let off some steam periodically. Without an occasional party to let off steam, life can get rough in a close-knit village.
  • Furthermore – isn’t it a good time of year to do some brush clearing to make room for new growth, to prune a little, after which, of course, you’ll need to burn it.
  • Won’t the lawn refuse of everyone in the village be better burned up on the nearest hill, so that we don’t all have to breathe all that garbage into our lungs (yes, I believe part of jahnske ohne was originally intended to be pollution control).
  • Won’t it be good when we spread the ash over our fields, because it helps the crops to grow.
  • Also, it’s a lot of fun to gather around a big bonfire and talk to people you haven’t seen in a while, or people who you do see in passing but don’t have the time for a proper discussion.  These weren’t concerns of the prior generation in the way they are today.  In this way, it seems that the tradition is being adapted by a younger generation to serve its own purposes in a busier world than Slovakia has known in the past.

These are the reasons the tradition continued to modern times – because it worked.  It achieved things that were needed in society and institutionalized them in habit.  I’m sure there are many ideas that can be added to this list above, this list of practical explanations for why janske ohne continue to occur.

A More Mystical Look on Why Janske Ohne Took Place in the Past

For a different perspective, we can look to Slovak ethnologist Viera Figlova, who writes about St. John’s Fires in the book Slovakia: European Contexts of the Folk Culture.  I’m sorry for the imperfect English from the book.  One significant flaw in an otherwise excellent book is that they could have used a better English language editor.  I hope that you will still be able to decipher meaning from this excerpt. I’ve grown used to decoding this broken English and understanding what it might mean. If you can’t understand it, just let me know and I will rewrite this by paraphrasing Figlova instead of quoting her:

“Under the custom[ary] tradition, Saint John’s day is connected to the collection of custom[ary] expressions, which were originally related to celebrations of the summer solstice.  They belonged among the most important festivals of the year.  Prevalence of various magic acts, which should protect a man, house, field, animals against witches and demons, points to surviving mythical concepts about this time.  Magical power was ascribed to flowering plants, about which people believed, that before the sunrise they spoke in the human language, could tell of illness, and they could cure.  Collection of medical plants on this day survived in Slovakia until the middle of the century.  Purgative and medical powers was ascribed to water, especially to dew.  For this day, many prohibitions were in effect: people could not manipulate with earth and women’s [work was] prohibited.

Fire in different forms belonged among the basic custom[ary] elements.  Camp fires were made in house surroundings or on the hills, people ran with torches, burning birch-rods, dish-cloths around the village and village territory, they twisted burning wheels on columns or they dropped them down the hill or burned trees.  Fires were burned on St. John’s day, in some places also more days before this day.  In Eastern Slovakia, fires were burned on Saturday, therefore they were called “sobotky” (little Saturdays).  Another regional name is “Vajano.”  Besides the magic-purgative ability of fire, [its] purpose was also to call rain, what can be read also of the functionality connected St. John’s day songs.  Young people and adults jumped over the fires, and ashes they carried to the field.  Newer meanings of these customs stressed entertaining purposes.  Shepherds, who considered June 24th to be their professional festival, burned fires close to their chalets and organized a feast.

“The spreading of St. John’s day fires in all European cultures confirms the longevity and coherence of concepts on fire as a symbol of the sun.  From the point of view of frequency of occurrence of collectively burned fires in calendar festivals we can state, that it occurs among Western Slavs and Hungarians in a smaller extent than among other European nations, where collective fire burning makes a part of all custom cycles and it repeats several times.”

I wish you well on this St. John’s Day.  And don’t forget to wish a happy name-day to any Johns you know (or Jans, Johans, Johanneses, Hanses, or any other variations on the name).   Sadly, I will not be out in the village burning a great fire, a tradition that I do appreciate, but I will honor the day nonetheless.  There will be a fire (as part of a BBQ on a friend’s balcony) in Bratislava and a few friends and I will read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream to commemorate this changing of seasons, a time when, as our ancestors suggested, many spirits walked the earth.

I hear midsummer is celebrated all over Europe.  Have you had experience with such a celebration either in Slovakia or away from Slovakia?  If you come from a Slovak immigrant family, do you recall anything unusual or unique connected to St. John’s Day – a celebration, a meal, a song, a folk aphorism, maybe even a fire?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • Very nice article, Allan. By the way, it’s funny you mention the poor editing in SIEC. I don’t know if you have been a member of the slovak-world yahoo group back then, but Helen F. used to send out passages from the book about once a week. The rest of the group then attempted to decipher what message the author was exactly trying to convey. Still, it’s a very good book nevertheless, probably the best on Slovak folk culture.

  • Ha! Lubos, that’s hilarious. I wasn’t a member of Slovak World then. I can imagine how much fun it must have been working through some of those passages. “Decipher” sounds like a good word to use. I agree with you, definitely a great book on Slovak folk culture.
    Allan

  • Allan, I love reading your work! I can’t remember how I came to subscribe to your website, I think my husband was trying to find out who was selling Zlaty Bazant in the Cleveland area. We run beachfront cottages for rent on Lake Erie, 40 miles west of Cleveland. Plaz Vilka Beachfront Cottages- I know, not really proper Slovak, but my English friends are learning to pronounce every letter! Stop by for a bacon roast (salana shutna-some Hungarian, maybe) over one of our beachfront fires!

  • Kathleen,
    Thank you for the kind words and thank you for mentioning Plaz Vilka here. It sounds like a nice place. When I am in Cleveland next, I will take you up on that offer of a bacon roast by a beachfront fire.
    Allan

  • John Hochberger

    Jun 27th, 2011

    Who would have imagined that there could be so much nuance and meaning to a “simple” annual bonfire in Slovakia? -Or that there could be a Shakespearean connection to it as well? Thank you, Allan, for a very insightful look into the culture of our forefathers.

  • Thank you, John.

  • Thank you John for summing it up so nicely.
    Allan

  • Katka,
    Thank you for sharing this link about the St. John’s celebration.
    Allan

  • I like your humor, Allan !! St. John’ Bonfires are good outlets for frustrated adults and an excuse to host a get-together while clearing your fallow field for a new crop !!

    Yeah, some Slovaks might be pyromaniatic !! Chain-smokers and persistent bar-b-querers. But I’m not !! I can’t stand Smoke !!! I’ll douse the first ember I see with a bucket of water, or ice !! My late Slovakian father enjoyed repeatedly lighting his pipe/fajka. Otherwise, his hands would get cold. And he used to smoke meat….

  • Cynthia,
    I like your new version of sibacka/polievakca (whipping and watering women) – instead of pouring buckets of water on the girls, you smoke it on whoever lights a cigarette.
    Allan

  • Thank you for appreciating the humor Cynthia. I’m going to tell the folks smoking outside right now (and blowing smoke my way) that they better watch out for you unless they want to end up soaking wet.
    Allan

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  • […] across Slovakia.  Follow this link to read last June’s article article about the annual “The Fire’s of St. John.” Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at http://www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of […]

  • Marycay Doolittle

    Jun 25th, 2012

    When we were kids we weren’t allowed to swim in a lake until St John’s Day, June 24th. I don’t remember why, but I seem to remember something about the lakes turning whatever that means. When it was warm we could barely wait for the 24th so we could go swimming. Does anyone know anything about this custom? Really enjoy reading your articles Allan. Thanks for your work.

  • eve smith

    Jul 7th, 2012

    Very interesting. I did not know about this custom.

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