Midsummer's Eve and the Summer Solstice, in Germany are nights of a thousand fires. They were once events of great mystical significance, when pagan Germanic and Celtic tribes celebrated the triumph of sun and light over cold and darkness with Sommersonnenwendefeuer, and summer solstice fires remain an ancient tradition continued in many of Germany's regions.
Summer solstice celebrations on June 21st were already a long established pre-Christian festival, known as Litha in some cultures, when centuries later the church followed their normal custom and made June 24th a religious feast day. That of John the Baptist.
It is one of the 'quarter days' which welcome each of the four seasons, and halfway to the commemoration of Christ's birth on December 24 is celebrated as the day of St. John's birth, six months before that of Jesus.
However, although the clergy's intention was to keep pagan and Christian festivities separate, Sommer-Sonnenwende and Johannisnacht, Summer Solstice and Midsummer Night, became almost inter-changeable.
Centuries after the town council of Nuremberg on June 20, 1653 issued a decree to 'do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John', after sunset on June 23rd throughout Germany there are fires on mountains, hillsides, open spaces, and alongside lakes and rivers.
Especially in the mountains 'Fire' was a traditional symbol for the Sun, and, with the advent of Christianity, for Christ.
While the connection between fire and the warmth of the sun, with its role in creation, rebirth and renewal in nature, is also a symbol for Summer Solstice, the beginning of summer, and the wide spread customs and rituals thought to bring love, fertility, purification and health were centered around it.
Young girls seeking predictions in the flames as to their future husbands, pairs of lovers hand in hand jumping through a fire as it died down to bring them luck, others jumped from one side to the other to burn off any illnesses for the next year, while another aim was to frighten away any spirits and demons who happened to be around.
Few now believe in spirits and demons but jumping through the dying flames for various reasons, including 'just for fun', is still a tradition which has lost none of its popularity.
The rose with its importance in the pagan and Christian world is not only one of the most popular shapes for a mountainside fire, but included in bouquets with Delphiniums, Cornflowers, Lilies, Poppies, Oak leaves, Ferns, Club moss, Artemisia and Saint John's Wort. This is hung upside down until dried and kept as a symbol of healing beauty and protection for the whole year.
While herbs were believed to take on special healing powers on Johannistag, and in the morning Johannisweiblein, women who were experts on herbs, would collect flowers as well as herbs for the Hausapotheke, the medicine chest. Always included would be Daisy, Arnica, Club moss, Verbena, Chamomile, Burdock, Mullein with its fuzzy leaves, (known in Germany as Sonnwendbluem - Solstice Flower), Thyme, Comfrey, Marigold and Saint John's Wort, (Johanniskraut - John's herb).
Although these days the same flower and herb mixture is collected and often made into a posy, a Johannisstraeusse, and put into a vase, or dried and to be used during the year.
Water, together with the flowers and herbs, was credited with healing powers on Midsummer's Day, known as the day of healing. Today, along with singing, dancing, feasting on everything from sausages to Wiener schnitzel and general 'partying', wells and fountains are cleaned and decorated, and the ancient custom of bathing in lakes and streams for therapeutic purposes is one reason why fires are still lit alongside them.
Many of the sites are 'gifted' with truck loads of sand which is spread around the bonfire area for the festivities, and removed in the morning.
During the weeks leading up to the festivals wood of all types is collected, carried up mountains and hills as well as moved to flat land, where together with rapeseed oil and sawdust filled sacks it is used to make huge mounds. Shortly before dusk on Midsummer Eve, and often accompanied by a religious service, bonfires dotted around Germany will be set alight and the fun and games begin.
Throughout Germany many events and festivities are held, including in gardens and on balconies illuminated with candles, but one of the most impressive takes place on the Zugspitze in Bavaria, Germany's highest mountain, and is known as Feuerzauber auf den Bergen, Fire Magic on the Mountains.
A spectacular sight, hundreds of bonfires are laid out on the mountainside and each group of fires becomes a picture carved out by flames, from a distance taking on a shape. Perhaps that of a bear, an eagle, rose or even a cable car. The mountain is covered with glowing images.
Now a tradition which began in the 14th century when the fires represented the sun, and frightened away any devils or evil spirits, attracts thousands of tourists each year at Summer Solstice.
In pre-Christian times Fire welcomed the summer from hills and mountains, and it is one of many ancient customs to be found in the Midsummer/Solstice celebrations held throughout the Germany of today.
"Johannisfeuer" in Freiburg, photographer Ralf Johann via de.Wikipedia - Burgfeuer Rose via BR.de - Traditional St. Johns, Midsummer, Summer Solstice and Religious Motive Bonfires on Zugspitze, courtesy abendzeitung-muenchen.de
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