FEAST of ST.JOHN – June 24th [ a.k.a. JONINËS]
From ancient times people marked the time of the return of the sun,
the shortest and longest night. In olden times it was called the Feast
of the DEWS, [ a.k.a. RASOS ]. When Christianity was established in Lithuania,
the name was changed to Feast of St. John, according to agrarian folk calendar,
the start of haying.
The rituals of the longest day were closely related to agrarian ideas
and notions. The main aim was to protect the harvest from natural calamities,
evil souls, witches and mid summer visitors like draught, hail, downpours
of rain and thunder. The ancients worshipped the great Goddess Lada and
God of Thunder, the ruler of thunder and lightning. From May 25th
till June 25th men visited taverns while women and girls danced in the
fields holding hands, sang and sacrificed white hens.
N.Vëlius wrote that the feast of the "Dews" binds
with the feast of God of Thunder honoring the embodiments of all kinds
of powers. Men's wrestling, a demonstration of their strength can be linked
to the feast of God of Thunder. On the longest day of summer, bread must
be baked and eaten before sunrise, saying the following words, " in the
name of the sun and thunder, I order you, fever, and chase you away from
The sun is the first to be addressed, because at this
time of year she is most active and most rites are carried out in her honor.
This is a holiday allotted to the Gods of Heaven.
Daukantas calls the Feast of St. John the "Wreath Feast",
and asserts that in ancient times it was celebrated during fourteen days.
In the 15th century, visitors to Lithuania wrote that
in Vilnius, the celebrations took place in the eastern section of the city,
the place of the present day "Rasos" cemetery. Fires were lit on hills
and in dales. People danced, sang, ate and drank. On the Feast of St John
a special role was granted to the sun. The sun is constantly mentioned
in songs sung on the longest day of the year.
On this ritual day, farmers paid special attention to
water's special powers in reviving soil and making it productive. Witchings
on this day were carried out near and with water, people washed themselves
and their animals. Special attention was paid to the dew because it revives
plants at night. At sunrise farmers made their way around the fields, pulling
a branch which brushed the dew to fall into the soil and cause a good harvest.
Maidens tried to get up before sunrise, collect the dew and wash their
faces with it to make them bright and beautiful. They would also get up
at night, go outside to wet their faces in the dew and returned to bed
without wiping their faces dry. If that night they dreamt of a young man
bringing them a towel, they hoped that he would be the one they would marry.
Country sorceresses, during that night dragged a towel over dewy grasses,
collected the dew, and watered the cows with it in order to increase their
Flourishing plants were worshipped because it was believed
that plants collected on the eve of the Feast of St. John posses magic
powers to heal, bring luck and foretell the future. This is an ancient
ritual practiced mainly by women. Roses, common daisies, especially the
herb St. John's worth and numerous grasses were some of the main plants
collected at this time.
P.Dundulienë asserts that nine plants with healing
powers were called "Kupolës", plants of the Feast of St. John. A festival
pole, decorated with flowers and greenery was also called "Kupolë".
Folklore shows that "Kupolë" was the Goddess of plants, living in
aromatic plants, blossoms or in buds in summer and in snowdrifts in winter.
In Lithuania Minor, even in winter before the Feast of
St. John, women made haste to collect medicinal herbs, with the belief
that after June 24th all herbs lose their healing powers.
Girls returned to the village after picking flowers and
singing, wreathed the festival post, "Kupolë", added colorful fluttering
ribbons to it. This festival post was set at the far end of the village,
near the grain fields. It had to be defended during two days and nights
from young men who tried to steel it. After saving the post, the girls
removed the decorative herbs and grasses and divided them amongst themselves
because these herbs had special protective powers against evil spirits
In some regions bunches containing nine plants were gathered
by women on the eve of the Feast of St. John . Some of the plants were
fed to animals before midnight, so they would be protected from evil eyes.
Bunches of St. John's worth were placed behind pictures of saints. If this
bunch did not wilt fast, it was believed that it will be a lucky year.
Other herb bunches were kept till Christmas, the winter return of the sun,
then fed to cows so that they would be healthy and good milkers. Cows'
udders were washed with a decoction made with St. John's worth. Bunches
of nine herbs were kept in barns through Christmas. Other bunches of dried
herbs were used to smoke sick people and animals.
It was believed that wreaths concentrate perpetual life's
forces and are symbols of immortality and life. There were many rites and
witchings associated with wreaths during this longest summer's night.
Walk around three fields and gather bunches of nine flowers,
twine a wreath and place it under your pillow. You will marry the man,
who in your dream comes to take away the wreath. At midnight, twelve wreaths
were dropped into a river and observed if they were pairing off. If no
pairing off occurred, there was to be no marriage that year. Near the river
Nemunas, wreaths were dropped in the water, only when the river was calm
and observed to which direction they drifted. Matchmakers would come from
that direction. Releasing the wreath with the current, it will be caught
by a young man, the maiden will be his. Should the wreath float away without
being caught, the maiden will keep that wreath all year in her dowry chest,
as a symbol of luck and health.
In the seacoast region, all during the night, young men
and women twined wreaths from ferns, placed candles and set them in streams.
Should both their wreaths swim together, they believed that they would
marry that year.
In some regions wreaths twined during the night of the
Feast of St. John were placed at crossroads with the belief that ones future
will be seen in a dream.
Seacoast fishermen did not go out to fish on the day
of the Feast of St. John or even several days after it. According to them,
the sea lurks for sacrificial lambs on these days.
The rites of this day continued till sunrise around bonfires.
The site selected for ritual bonfires was always in the most beautiful
area, on hills, on river shores and near lakes. In some regions bonfires
were lit on future grain fields and under linden trees.
Those who are not fond of socializing on the eve, hurry
and gather along lake shores, light bonfires, place burning poles, covered
with tar into trees, so that there would be light all night long until
sunrise. Special decorated wheels were lit and were rolled down hillsides,
this symbolized the sun's moving away from the earth and at the same time
a request for her return.
In ancient times, the ritual fires were lit by senior
priests, " vaidilos". That fire was started with sparks coming from rubbing
dried roots of medicinal herbs or from flying sparks when striking flint
stones. Such fires would protect from epidemics, illnesses, poor harvests,
hail and lightning.
Eggs were thrown into the fires and animals sacrificed.
Later straw dolls were sacrificed in place of animals.
The ritual fires were built up to throw their light over
a large area of fields, to assure a big autumn harvest. On the eve of this
feast day, home fires were put out and new fires were lit using glowing
coals from the ritual fires of that day. It was believed that these ritual
fires had special powers, which would protect from misfortunes, bring health
and harmony to the family. It was important for newlyweds to light the
fire in their hearth with the coals of the miraculous ritual fire. Such
a family would be blessed, live well and in total harmony.
P. Dundulienë in her book " Fire in Lithuanian Folk
Culture", writes that jumping over fires or around it had magic meaning.
Ritual bonfires cleansed both physically and psychologically. Sick adults
and children were brought to the ritual fires and were pulled through the
fire, with the belief that they would be healed. Jumping over the fire
was carried out with the belief of making better health, increasing body
strength for hard summer labors and assuring better growth of grain and
flax. Ritual fires' ashes, smoldering coals had special powers to increase
the harvest and protect it from natural calamities. The coals were dug
under in fields, ashes were sprinkled on crops to assure good crop yields.
To keep weeds from growing in grain fields, ritual fires' wood splinter
remains , were tied to the plough share when ploughing the fields.
In East Prussia, the common tradition was to throw herbs
and flower wreaths into the ritual fires. Weeds were also thrown into the
ritual fires with the belief that there would be fewer of them next year.
The most archaic tradition of this day is tall poles
with wheels at their top, set on fire. The wheel symbolized the primitive
farmers' attitudes to the sun or her travel cart. This tradition is related
to myths about the sun's travels by cart or by boat. The tradition of boating
on lakes and rivers in flower and wreath decorated boats, in which a fire
was lit, symbolized the floating sun and was widespread throughout Lithuania.
The feast of St. John is connected with summer weddings
and their rituals which were bound to affect family living and population
increases. Should a pair become friends this night, there will definitely
be a wedding.
The night of June 24th is the shortest night of the year,
filled with bird sounds and luxuriant vegetation. Darkness substitutes
light unnoticeably, night is full of miracles due to fire reflections and
shadows. It was believed that activity during this night of supernatural
creatures or female witches was ill disposed towards men, animals and plants.
To keep animals from their malevolent actions, animals were put in barns
before sunset and were fed bread with salt for protection. Mountain ash
branches and wheat sprays were hung on door posts for protection against
In some regions clogs were placed in front of a mirror.
Witches would step into the clogs and run away upset by their frightful
image in the mirror.
In Samogitija, "Šatrija" was the most famous witches'
hill, where during the night of the Feast of St. John, witches party and
rage all night and invent all kinds of enchantings. This is why one could
not do without " witches burnings". Young people tied a barrel filled with
tar and sawdust to
a high pole, sprinkled it with salt so that the witches
would crackle. The barrel was set on fire while the young people sang and
danced merrily. Next morning the cow herd was driven through the remaining
ashes , with the belief that witchings will no longer be harmful.
During the night of the Feast of St. John, the miraculous
fern bursts into bloom. It is difficult to catch sight of this bloom, however
this difficulty can be overcome by going to the forest the day before,
cutting down a mountain ash, pruning the branches and cutting off the top.
Then pulling the tree backwards, walk about one hundred steps without looking
back, toward the side to which the cut tree fell. Look back after the hundred
steps and then you will see the devil sitting stuck in the ash tree. The
devil will ask for your help to get off the tree and for your help will
tell you where to find the blooming fern. When you locate the blooming
fern, ghosts will attack with butting horns whirlwinds will howl and cats
will cry. Then take a cane made of mountain ash, draw a circle around you
with it, spread a linen cloth and stop being afraid. The fern blossom will
fall on the cloth. Some say that the fern bloom is like birch dust, others
describe it as round and white like carp's scale.