JOHN, SAINT, FIRE OF (SAINT JOHN'S FIRE): A fire lighted in accord with ancient custom in various countries, especially in southern Germany, on the evening or eve of the day of St. John the Baptist (June 24) in the open air on hills and mountains, or in the streets and villages. It must be needfire, and the ceremonies attending it are the dancing of the young around it, the throwing of all sorts of flowers, herbs, and garlands into it, the priestly blessing of the fire, the kindling and rolling of a wheel wrapped with straw ("St. John's wheel") the erection of a tree, the driving of cattle through the fire, the carrying of torches and fire-brands, and the like. All manner of healing and beneficent properties are ascribed to the fire, such as protection against sickness, cure of all diseases (especially epilepsy), fertility, exemption from fire and storm, and safety against witchcraft. Although the origin, extension, and significance of these customs are uncertain, it is at least clear that they are survivals of a primitive cult of the light, fire, and sun, current throughout the Indo-Germanic peoples. Parallels are accordingly found not only in the Greco-Roman world, as in the Vesta-cult and the Palilia, but also among the Celts, Germans, and Slavs, though there is no evidence that one people borrowed from another. The festival was obviously a celebration of the summer solstice. The garlands, like the rolling of the wheel and the dancing round the fire, symbolize the sun, but the so-called "solstice-girdle," as the ironwort and wormwood hallowed in ancient custom are called, represent the girdle bound about his loins by the Apostle John lest he should become weary in his wanderings. The fire of St. John celebrates the solstice, the time when the days are longest, and also the time when the bloom of spring passes over to the harvest. At that period the heat of summer threatens sickness, so that the blessings of fertility must be assured, and all impending danger be averted. It is the time when lost treasures rise and are exposed to the light of the sun, and spirits seeking release wander about. All plants then develop especially healing properties, and water is then particularly good both for bathing and drinking. This is explained by the ancient Germanic belief in Baldur, the god of light, whose place is here taken by John the Baptist. The fire of St. John thus represents victory of light over darkness, the shortest night of the year, on which in the far north the sun does not set, being transformed into day by the fires. The Church was fully conscious of the relation of the feast of St. John to the summer solstice, and endeavored to suppress the custom of kindling fires; but it was forced to yield to popular usage, so that finally the fire was not only tolerated, but the clergy and the nobility took part in the celebration. Attempts were made at an early time, however, to give the fire of St. John a Christian interpretation, and medieval theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries interpreted it with reference to John i. 8. Others sought to explain the fire from the legend of the burning of the Baptist's bones at Sebaste, while the dance was supposed to be a reminiscence of the dance of the daughter of Herodias, all efforts being made to avoid any allusion to paganism. In many placers, especially in Evangelical countries, the fires of St. John have been forbidden in modern times, or have become obsolescent of themselves.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: P. M. Paciandi, De cultu S. Joannis Baptistae antiquitates Christianae, Rome, 1758; C. F. de Khautz, De ritu ignis in natali S. Johannis accensi, Vienna, 1759; Ersch and Gruber, Allgemeine Encyclopädie, section II., vol. xxii., p. 265; F. Nork, Festkalender, pp. 406 sqq., Stuttgart, 1847; J. Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, p. 578 sqq., Göttingen, 1854; R. Chambers, Book of Days, under June 24, 2 vols., London, 1862-64.


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