Julia McLean writes about the midsummer solstice in France, but she notes that this summertime celebration does mark the approach of winter. Say what?
I am “no longer young and easy under the apple boughs” and “happy as the grass is green” (to misquote Dylan Thomas) because summer’s lease hath all too short a date and this is the time of year when I feel the saddest. My Old English roses are losing their bloom and, like many heavily perfumed flowers, will only blossom once, so this summer is nearly over for them. The midsummer solstice has just passed so I know winter cannot be too far away.
Here in Normandy, the summer solstice coincides with the Feast of St. John Baptist and there is always some kind of celebration – usually a bonfire – Le Feu St Jean*. This celebration had fallen a little by the wayside in recent years, but now villages, more aware of the tourist potential, are celebrating in force. The firemen are charged with organising the bonfire. This is another example of the newer Christian celebration being grafted on to a pagan feast. While the Druids are chanting in Stonehenge, the French, incapable of celebrating anything if there is no food on offer, are busy feasting.
This year our village planned an alfresco meal so that we could all see the fire when it was lit as night fell around 11pm. There was a time when we stood uneasily about watching Norman folk dancing performed by an elite band of adepts, rather like Morris dancing. Nowadays, there is a noisy four-piece band and dancing till dawn. Fortunately, the night is short!
La Fete St. Jean* is celebrated in towns and villages of Quebec in Canada as well. There are concerts, music festivals and dances and fairs with food stalls. Usually, the day ends with a big bonfire followed by a fireworks display.
Towards the end of July, les Feux de La Saint Clair is an even more impressive bonfire lit in honour of St. Clair. He was nobly born in 845 in Rochester, England and grew up to be a very pious boy. He fled England to avoid being married to a Welsh princess. He preached Christianity all around the Cherbourg peninsula and then across the north of Normandy, and was supposed to have performed many miracles. The Welsh princess felt dishonoured by his desertion and sent two assassins after him. They chopped off his head but he simply bent down and picked it up, washed the blood off and laid it down in his hermit cell. On this spot a chapel was later built. The town is called St Clair sur Epte and it was here that Rollo the Viking accepted to become a Christian. St. Clair (which is also the word for ‘clear’) became the patron saint invoked for headaches and eye problems. He is also the patron saint of lantern- and mirror makers.
The most famous of the Feux St Clair is at La Haye de Routot not far from Rouen in the Foret de Brotonne. This tiny village has few houses but is renowned for three principal things – its old Bread Oven where bakers run old fashioned bread-making courses and where you can watch bread being made every Sunday; its Clog Museum where you can buy clogs from all over France to fit you; and the 1,600 year old Yew trees in the churchyard.
The Yew trees are spectacular, each being about 15 metres around and each containing a chapel! Yews were traditionally planted in churchyards because their berry seeds are poisonous and this prevented the villagers from letting their cattle browse in the cemeteries and they stopped hungry dogs or wolves from digging up the corpses. Yews also happened to be sacred in pre-Christian times. As the trees got older, they hollowed out. Once a priest noticed people sheltering inside this mystery of nature, so he decided to put a little chapel there to emphasize the mysteries of God’s world. One tiny chapel is dedicated to St. Anne and is little more than an altar with a door; the larger one is dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and can house several people.
The St. Clair bonfire in this village is even more spectacular. It was moved from its original location because several times the wind drove sparks onto the yews which nearly took fire. Now, the bonfire is carefully constructed over a period of a month before the big day, further away from the yews. It measures about 12 metres high, and a huge crucifix, decorated with flowers and foliage, is fixed to the top. When the whole thing is set alight at 11 p.m., the hope is that the crucifix will not burn. This will guarantee good fortune for the village during the coming year. People also try to take home a bit of burnt wood or, even better, a glowing ember which they put next to their fireplaces to protect their houses from fire over the coming year – an important consideration in times when country houses were wood framed with thatch roofs.
We have had a wonderful summer of celebrations so far this year, and although thrushes are still singing and roses are loading the air with their final fragrances and the liquid glory of the sun is rippling through the apple trees, I am dreading the grey skies of winter. They mean rain and drizzle, downpours and damp, squally showers and sheeting cloudbursts and no warmth: no sun on upturned faces, no ripe smell of new-mown hay, no crickets chirping away under the tunnels of foliage rippling in the shadows, no moments of silent sunlight so strong that the skies turn from sapphire to a pale duck egg hue way above the horizon; no village fetes, no bonfires, no alfresco meals. Just leaden skies and rain, rain, rain.
*Note: Le feu is masculine in French but la fete is feminine so these two celebrations can be called ‘la St Jean’ ( the feast of St John) or Le Saint Jean (the fire of St John).
St. Jean bonfire. Photo courtesy of Julia McLean
All other photos courtesy of la Haye de Routot website.