St Jean: a not-to-be-missed festival in the South of France
This week, it’s all about the festival of St Jean: one of the most spectacular festivals of the year in Valbonne, where I live. All around France around this time of the year there are festivals celebrating St Jean, or as the saint is known in English, Saint John the Baptist. The celebrating of St Jean is the story behind the fire nowadays, but apparently the festival goes waaaaay back to before Christianity raised its head, and was a celebration to commemorate the Summer solstice. Whatever its origins, I’m glad it has continued! The religious part also seems to have been set aside in Valbonne. It’s all about carrying flaming torches and jumping the fire for luck (that is: you’re lucky if you don’t fall in the bonfire).
Flaming torches in the hands of small children
The procession starts with flaming torches being handed out to everyone in the small main square in the middle of the village, just as it is starting to get dark. This is always an exciting part of the festival as there are many small children waving around large fire-y sticks in a small crowded area. This adds a little adrenaline rush to the whole proceedings when you realise that your back or arm is starting to feel very hot. This year they gave out 500 torches: not enough for everyone, but enough to make a beautifully lit procession which was led by a drumming band through the village and out to the bonfire. The darkness, fire and drumming gives the whole festival a very primitive feeling. It is very stirring to think that around the same time every year for the last 1000 years or so, this parade, which is now called the festival of St Jean, has been taking place right here in Valbonne. We are somehow connected invisibly to all those people who came before us, stretching back through the centuries. I wonder if in another 1000 years, people will still be carrying the torches through Valbonne and wondering about us.
A few shoes get burnt in the process
Once you reach the bonfire, you throw your flaming torch into it. This year a few people threw a little too hard and the torches ended up in the crowd on the other side of the bonfire, which was quite exciting for everyone, though maybe less exciting for those who nearly got hit. Then the real fun starts. The drummers drum harder and the firemen rake the bonfire to allow people to start jumping over it. The mayor is always the first to jump, which is a more interesting thing to do than the usual ribbon-cutting and hand-shaking he is involved with. After that, everyone (who is brave enough) lines up for their turn to jump the fire. The firemen run in constantly with equipment to put out sparking and burning shoes. Many of the village kids go back to make the leap over the fire again and again. Everyone cheers and claps the St Jean jumpers. The fire slowly begins to die down and people drift away home. The next day at the village school, the kids sleep at their desks. The festival of St Jean is over for another year.
Here’s a short video I took of the St Jean festival. It gives you an idea of the atmosphere. It makes my spine tingle!
It was reassuring the see that the firemen had their truck at the bonfire, though I think it was more there so that they could stand on top of it and watch the show.
By Lisa Watson