Last night was a fun party in Vrboska, with a spectacular bonfire, klapa singing, food and wine. All day our neighbours were looking for old bits of wood, and we were encouraged to contribute. By the evening, there was quite a pile!
This was the annual Žežin Sv Ivana, the celebration of St John’s Eve, which brought the locals out in force. Clearly this is one of those traditional events with roots going back several centuries. So why the bonfire? And why is this the appropriate way to celebrate St John the Baptist’s birth?
St John, of course is a later overlay on an older heritage that has more to do with the summer solstice. It’s a midsummer celebration that has echoes all over Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, Germany and France. The bonfire is generally seen as a cleansing of the evil spirits that emerge at the turning of the seasons.
In Croatia, Ivanjski krijesovi (John’s bonfires) tend to be on the banks of rivers or lakes, or on beaches beside the sea. The story goes that they can be seen from further away, but it seems sensible in summer, as it would be safer that way! Less sensible is the tradition for young folks to jump over the flames, so that they would be pure for the next year. Thankfully nobody in Vrboska was trying that!
Midsummer celebrations around Europe take place anytime between 19 and 25 June. Back in Roman times, the solstice was 24 June, which marked the beginning of the festival of Vestalia. The Christians set the date for John the Baptist’s birth as 24 June, being 6 months before Jesus’ birth as implied in St Luke’s gospel. So now we have St John’s Eve as the perfect time to light a bonfire and have a midsummer party!
And a short video of the scene: