Johannistag: Celebrate summer June 23
A week after arriving in Germany, my husband and I walked out of a restaurant and saw a large fire burning in the middle of the town square. Biergarten tables filled with revelers drinking beer and eating Brotzeit (pretzels) surrounded the blaze. We did not know at the time we had stumbled upon our town’s Midsummer’s night festival, an ancient German tradition.
Johannistag, also known as Midsummer’s Day or St. John’s Day, is held on or near the longest day of the year, which is typically in June. This year, Johannistag is June 23. This day symbolizes the middle of summer and the shortest night of the year. To commemorate this occasion, Germans have for centuries lit bonfires, also known as a Johannisfeuer or Sommersonnewendenfeuer. The fires are lit as the sun sets and Johannisnacht begins. These fires were traditionally thought to chase the evil spirits away and prevent plagues. Johannistag also has religious significance. This day represents the birthday of St. John the Baptist and is a part of the church calendar, although it is not an official German holiday.
The summer solstice celebration originated in ancient, pre-Christian times among Celtic and Germanic tribes. It was believed that the sun had a healing effect, so the day with the most daylight was revered. The bonfires, then known as need-fires, were thought to rid evil from communities. Witches, ghosts and other evils, such as disease, would be cast off when the fires were lit. Farmers would spread the fire’s ashes over their fields, hoping it would promote growth. Livestock was also herded between two fires to free it of illness and prevent plagues.
The first reported Johannistag celebration in Munich occurred in 1401, when a Sonnwendfeuer was lit on Marienplatz. City folk danced around the bonfire, cheering on the release of evil via flames. A wide range of citizens from every walk of life participated. It was reported that even royal families attended these gatherings, like the royals in Vienna during the 15-18th centuries. On June 20, 1653 the Nuremberg town council issued a decree allowing the people of Germany the official right to celebrate the sun solstice gathered around bonfires. The ridding of evil was seen as a preparation for the holy occasion of St. John the Baptist’s birth.
Different celebrations in Germany
In northern German states like Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, locals gather around the fire in a field. In other towns, bonfires are placed in the middle of the main square. Some villages even place a doll representing a witch (or Hexe) atop the woodpile, symbolizing the elimination of evil. Many of the Johannistag festivals resemble Volksfests, with brass band music, beer and sausages.
In the German Alps, villagers carry wood up to the highest peaks before the bonfire celebration begins. Near the Zugspitze in Ehrwald, Austria (just across the German border), the summer solstice is celebrated with multiple fires on the mountain. Approximately 10,000 individual fires are lit to create the themed designs. The event is called Bergfeuer Ehrwald because the mountains “are in flames.” Previous fire designs include symbols of faith, like crosses, as well as music notes and radiant hearts. The event this year is on June 24.
Traditions in Europe
Midsummer bonfires are a common celebration, but in other parts of the world, traditions can be mystical or even rowdy. Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England hosts both tourists and druids on this occasion. Visitors gather to see the sun rising and the sun’s alignment with the Altar, Slaughter and Heel stones. Norwegians also celebrate this day with bonfires and herbs. Norwegian legend says that if a girl collects seven different flowers and hides then under her pillow on Midsummer’s Eve, she will see her future husband in her dreams. In Portugal, locals celebrate the festival of São João (St. John), which is similar to Carnival or Mardi Gras. Partiers are known to hit others on the head with plastic hammers or garlic flowers. This act is supposed to set people on the “straight and narrow” path.
Experience this celebration for yourself! Look out for signs or advertisements in your area for Johannisfeuer or Sommersonnenwende. Join the celebration on the longest day of the year.