Midsummer's Eve and Summer Solstice in Germany are nights of a thousand fires. Once of great mystical significance; a time when pagan Germanic and Celtic tribes celebrated the triumph of sun and light over cold and darkness with Sommersonnenwendefeuer. "Summer Solstice Fires" that are still a tradition followed in many of Germany's regions.
When the Christian church followed their usual custom of turning existing festivals into religious feast days, making June 24 that of John the Baptist, celebrations for summer solstice on June 21 had already been a long established pre-Christian festival. Known in some cultures as "Litha".
One of the "quarter days" that welcome each of the four seasons, and halfway to the commemoration of Christ's birth on December 24, it is celebrated as the day of St. John's birth. Six months before that of Jesus.
Although the clergy's intention was to keep pagan and Christian festivities separate, Sommer-Sonnenwende and Johannisnacht, Summer Solstice and Midsummer Night, became almost interchangeable.
Centuries after the town council of Nuremberg issued a decree on June 20, 1653, to "Do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John", after sunset on June 23 there are fires on mountains, hillsides, open spaces, and alongside lakes and rivers, throughout Germany.
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 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 its 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 jumping through fires hand in hand as they die down to bring them luck. Some jump from one side to the other to burn off illnesses for the next year, while another aim was to frighten away any spirits and demons who happen to be around.
Few now believe in spirits and demons but jumping through the dying flames for various reasons, including "just for fun", is a tradition that 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.
Hung upside down until dried, this is 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; 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, placed in a vase, or dried and used during the year.
Water, together with the flowers and herbs, was credited with healing powers on Midsummer's Day; "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 fires are still lit alongside them.
Many of the sites are "gifted" with truck loads of sand, and this is spread around the bonfire area for the festivities, then removed in the morning.
During the weeks leading up to the festivals wood is collected, carried up mountains and hills as well as moved to flat land; there, 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, the bonfires dotted around Germany will be set alight and fun and games begin.
There are many events and festivities held throughout Germany, including in gardens and on balconies that have been illuminated with candles, but one of the most impressive takes place on Germany's highest mountain the Zugspitze in Bavaria, 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 with flame. From a distance taking on a shape: a bear, an eagle, rose, a cable car. The mountain is covered with glowing images.
Now a tradition that began in the 14th century when the fires represented the sun, as well as frightening away devils or evil spirits, attracts thousands of tourists at Summer Solstice.
Fire welcomed the summer from hills and mountains in pre-Christian times, and is one of many ancient customs in the Midsummer/Solstice celebrations held in the Germany of today.
"Johannisfeuer" Deutscher Alpine Verein - 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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