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I think, therefore I harm

Summer Solstice / St-Jean-Baptiste

This morning I checked the date on my phone when someone asked for it. Then it struck me. Tomorrow will be the summer solstice. Already.

Like the ancient civilizations, I live by solstices and equinoxes. The meaning to me is probably somewhat related to how people interpreted these days back then, but in other ways it is probably totally different. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year. On the Gregorian calendar (the one which we use in most of the world today), it is the first day of summer. To me, that is incorrect though, as I think that day is rather the middle of the summer, not the first day. Maybe it depends of interpretation, and perhaps even where in the world you live. In Québec, we can go out without a coat from about late April to early September, and thus to me the solstice in late June is really the middle of that season. I don’t really see a year as four seasons as the calendar suggests, rather I see it as two seasons: Winter and summer. Each of these seasons are about six months long. There is indeed a small period I call Spring, and than another short period I call Fall, but I mostly interpret these as these very short periods of time when there is no snow on the ground but a coat is still required.

I suffer seasonal depression. I am very happy and active during the summer, but feel depressed and out of energy during the winter. I have learned a few tricks over the years, and now that I understand this illness of mine I am able to control it to some extend, but for my entire life I will always suffer from winter time. Year after year, I feel like winter lasts forever, while summer is very, very short, though in reality these are both around the same duration. This is like how a good movie and a bad movie will appear to last, though they are both of the same length.

I see the summer solstice with mixed feelings. The hottest and most beautiful days are in July and August here, and therefore the solstice can be seen as the arrival of those hot sunny days which I could take all year round. It means that my vacations are approaching, that I will finally have several days off work, and that I will be able to do the activities I have waited nearly a year to do again. However, on the more negative side of me, it says that half of summer went by already, and that winter will come again. I do fight that negative thought, but it isn’t easy. Days going longer one day after another is encouraging, but as I notice they begin going shorter I can’t help myself but remember winter is coming.

John the Baptist, as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci

John the Baptist, as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci

Though we do not culturally celebrate summer solstice here, we do have one celebration very close to that date. Québec national day, called St-Jean-Baptiste or just St-Jean (French for St. John the Baptist) is observed every year on June 24th, and is an official paid holiday.

John the Baptist is an important religious figure mentioned in both the Bible (the catholic holy book) and the Qur’an (the Islamic holy book). John the Baptist is described as an itinerant preacher, who organized rituals which corresponded with baptism. According to catholic believes, John the Baptist was the one who baptized Jesus on the eastern bank of the Jordan river, situated in between today’s Israel and Jordan, the later being historically the region of Palestine.

Way back in time, St-Jean-Baptiste was a catholic religious day observed in France as the day John the Baptist was born. The festivities were extended to many countries, several of which still celebrate it, like Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The first French colonists brought the tradition of St-Jean-Baptiste in Canada and it was celebrated for the first time in America on the evening of June 23, 1636, on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, the main river which traverses the province of Québec from East to West. In 1834, St-Jean-Baptiste day became a patriotic day which was celebrated in Lower Canada (now Québec) as a mean to reunite with Upper Canada (now Ontario, as Canada had not then expended much over that point), who were historically enemies. Lower Canada was mainly populated with French colonists while Upper Canada was mostly British colonists. The aim of the celebration failed however and only lasted for four years, after which war raged again in between the two nations. St-Jean-Baptiste was celebrated again by 1843, but as a religious celebration again. The reunion only occurred in 1867, as Canada was instated as a country.

Let's bet this fire really announces arrival of beautiful days...

Let’s bet this fire really announces arrival of beautiful days…

On June 24th, 1880, St-Jean-Baptiste returned as a patriotic celebration again. At that point, it was meant to be a celebration of all French Canadians, and this day is still observed by all French speaking people in all of Canada today. In 1977, then prime minister of Québec René Lévesque declared June 24th the Québec national day and made it a paid statutory holiday. From that point, it ceased to be a celebration of French Canadians or of any religious figure, and instead was meant to be the celebration of all Québecers, no matter their language, religion or origins. However, in reality, it is mostly ignored by English speakers in the province. In the rest of Canada, it is still observed by the French communities.

Depending of cities, areas and what day of the week it falls, St-Jean-Baptiste is celebrated on the evening of either June 23rd or 24th, or even both evenings. Borrowing from the old religious festivities of France, the center piece of the celebration is always a large bonfire (we call it feu de la st-jean). Whoever is able to produce the largest bonfire is considered the hero of the night. Many bonfires are prepared for several days in advance, in order to gather the large amount of wood required, often positioned as a gigantic cone. In Gaspésie, a peninsula on the eastern coast of Québec, these bonfires are often ignited on the beach. In rural areas, they are often prepared in a field, away from forest or crops. In cities, they are most often done in public parks which are large enough to accommodate a large crowd. Celebrations are usually centered around one or many music bands, which always sing French language only songs. In the late 70s and early 80s, these songs were mostly classical and well-known songs from France as a mean to remember our roots, however in the later years these songs are mostly classical or modern Québec songs, but always only in French. Fireworks are often part of the night, in recent years even in privately held parties.

I have little personal knowledge of how St-Jean-Baptiste is celebrated in the rest of Canada, outside of Québec, but people told me the celebrations were very similar, with the bonfire in the middle and music all night.


A bonfire being prepared a few days before the festivities

If you ever visit Québec during the summer, make sure to plan an evening at one of the places where St-Jean-Baptiste is celebrated. Mostly, that is everywhere where people are mostly French speaking people. To avoid any conflict with the locals which might not realize you are a clueless tourist, avoid wearing any red (the color of Canada and English speaking people) on these days. In fact, I would encourage you to wear as much blue (the color of Québec, France and French speaking people) as possible. If you can wear a blue hat with a white fleur de lys on it, that would be wonderful. If anyone, that day, asks you if you are in favor of Québec sovereignty (or the split, as is often said here), don’t think twice and yell a big yes, even though you don’t care at all about this political question.

I don’t care much about the political turn the celebration took. This week-end, I will celebrate the solstice. With a hell of a big bonfire.


6 comments on “Summer Solstice / St-Jean-Baptiste

  1. Lidia
    June 23, 2013

    I know, in Sweden the festival is the entire weekend. And goes together with lots of food and lots of (alcoholic) drinks. 😛

    • Tom Duhamel
      June 23, 2013

      Oh! Too bad I’m not Swedish. Oh wait, that just sounded like I was an alcoholic lol

      Thanks for this comment. My reference was only research-based, I had absolutely no first-hand knowledge of any of these European festivities.

      • Dianda
        July 1, 2013

        I have a friend on facebook who lives in Sweden. She told me all about the festivals. It sounded so cool!

  2. heretherebespiders
    June 23, 2013

    We have bonfire night here! I remember it from my first year here, they set one in a bit of scrubland behind our house. I’d only lived here a few months and was fascinated. Now there are four houses built on that land, never been lived in, and I rather miss the big mess of blackberries and the old rusty van buried in greenery. Hubby says bonfire night is older than Catholicism but, of course, the church took it over and added a saint to the mix (they have them to spare, of course).

    Um. Remember how we discussed how blog posts show up in their entirety in an email? Yours don’t, mine do – I’d like to change that, if you can help?

    • Tom Duhamel
      June 23, 2013

      Yes, I remember. I’m sending you an email right away.

  3. sledpress
    June 23, 2013

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2013 by in Culture, History and tagged , , , , , , .
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