What is the significance of Johannistag in Germany?
The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (or Johannistag in German) is held on June 24, and is a religious feast day. While not a public holiday in Germany, the day is still a significant event in the Christian calendar and marked in some communities in the federal republic. We dive into the history of this unusual event and explain the significance it holds in Germany.
Who was Saint John the Baptist?
Saint John the Baptist was a preacher, who was born somewhere in Judea in the 1st century BC. He is a major religious figure in the Christian and Islamic faiths, and is best-known for baptising Jesus. His significance is such that he is even sometimes portrayed as being related to Jesus. This connection is further emphasised by the fact that John the Baptist's birthday was said to be on June 24, six months before the birth of Jesus.
Known as John the Immerser, John the Forerunner, and Prophet Yaha in Islam, John the Baptist was a preacher before being revered as a prophet of God and canonised across many different sects of Christianity.
The biblical account of the life of Saint John
Much of what is known of Saint John the Baptist’s life comes from the New Testament. His birth was announced to his father, an old priest named Zechariah, by the angel Gabriel. John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, something of a miracle since Elizabeth was at the time considered too old to give birth. John grew up to become a preacher, baptising people in the Jordan River, wearing clothes made from camel hair and eating wild locusts and honey. John preached baptism as a form of repentance and would eventually come to baptise Jesus.
According to the Gospels, John was executed by Herod Antipas, the then ruler of Galilee - the same Herod who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus. John is said to have condemned the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, the ex-wife of his half-brother Herod II. Herod was afraid to persecute John due to his popularity amongst the people, but, upon promising to grant Herodias’ daughter Salome a wish, was forced to execute him, after the girl asked for John’s head on a platter. In a scene that is often depicted in art throughout history, John’s head is presented to Herod on a plate.
Interestingly, historical accounts, such as the 1st century work of the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, also refer to a John who baptised people and was revered by the Jews. Josephus suggests that King Herod was worried about John's influence among his people and so had him executed. However, Herod went on to suffer a disastrous defeat in battle, at the hands of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, which Josephus suggests could be God's judgement on the king.
The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is a Christian feast day marking the birth of Saint John, and is celebrated traditionally within both Western Christian and Eastern Christian churches. Celebrations include church services, the singing of hymns and, in the Eastern Churches, an all-night vigil.
In Quebec, the day has been designated a public holiday and is celebrated with a parade and festivities. Aside from Quebec and Puerto Rico, the day isn’t celebrated as a public holiday in any other countries, but it has gained importance throughout the world due to its connection with midsummer.
Saint John’s Eve
While Saint John the Baptist’s Day is not celebrated as a public holiday in many countries, Saint John’s Eve has gained significance around the world due to its ties with midsummer celebrations. Midsummer is an old pagan celebration that predates Christianity, and traditionally comes in the middle of summer, around the summer solstice (the longest day of the year).
Over time, therefore - as is the case for many Christian festivals that overlap with old pagan celebrations - the traditions surrounding these two events have started to become intertwined. Many countries around the world mark Saint John's Eve with practices traditionally used to celebrate midsummer, for instance by lighting fireworks and bonfires, and collecting medicinal plants. In some countries, a maypole is erected as part of the midsummer celebrations. Songs and hymns are sung, and in some places, people bathe in rivers and lakes as a way of cleansing the body from evil, a clear homage to Saint John’s baptisms.
How is Johannistag celebrated in Germany?
Johannistag and Saint John’s Eve are both celebrated in Germany. Church services are held on Johannistag itself and a special hymn, written by German priest and reformer Martin Luther, is often sung. Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam has been set to many musical compositions, including three church cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Proper celebrations are held on Saint John’s Eve, when bonfires and fireworks are lit and people gather together, often in great numbers. In fact, lighting bonfires has become such a major tradition on Saint John’s Eve that they are even referred to as being “Saint John’s fires”. It is also tradition to pick "Saint John's herbs" (Johanneskräuter) on Saint John’s Eve, and bring them to church for a special blessing.
Other traditional celebrations observed in Germany include making and decorating the Johanniskrone (Saint John’s Crown), which is made from branches and decorated with eggs, roses and flowers. It is hung outside so that people can dance around it. Some Germans also like to make hot Johanniskuchen (John’s cake) and bathe in rivers and lakes.