On Sunday night we went to the Feu de la Fête de la St Jean (Feast of St John’s fire) in nearby Valbonne village. It’s a spectacular fête, quite unlike any other and just so full of atmosphere. Apart from anything else it’s amazingly dangerous. Put a couple of thousand people together in a small enclosed village square, give them a flaming torch to carry, add in a fair bit of rosé, and process together to an enormous bonfire, hurl your flame at the fire and then jump over it. It’s sort of organised chaos and somehow no one gets burnt! There are kids running around and teenagers ducking in and out of groups of friends, waving to each other, dogs on leads pulling their owners around and everyone has a 2 foot high flaming torch in their hand. How no one’s hair catches on fire is incredible really, given the close proximity and all the different heights of the people parading.
Despite its name, the feast of St John, has its origins in pagan times and it was only with the advent of Christianity that it became associated with the birth of John the Baptist. It is a celebration of the summer solstice, or Mid Summer, and the date, 24th of June, is the day of the solstice in Roman times. Many countries around the world celebrate the solstice in one way or another often with fire and France is no exception. Different regions have varying traditions but all revolve around fire. Here the practice is to jump over the bonfire as the embers die down, a tradition that has evolved from an ancient rite of purification associated with springtime. This is unsurprisingly very popular with local children. As a mother I find it highly alarming to watch my son jump, though as this was the 5th year he’s done it and is now taller than me I’m getting less nervous!
So, to get back to Valbonne. The medieval village was swarming with people and music. Three different traditional bands played Provencal music, one static in the square and two ambulatory entertaining the diners at the long trestle tables set up in the ancient narrow streets. As 10 o’clock approached the crowds gathered to receive their torches and then with flames alight we moved off en masse along the cobbled alleyways towards the big open space where the bonfire awaited us. Being near the back of the crowd I missed seeing the lighting of the fire, but this is done by the first arrivals hurling their torches at the pyre. Once everyone had arrived and thrown their flames the fire was spread out by heat-resistant volunteers (it was a hot night and next to the flames it must have been unbearable) ready for the jumpers. The first person to leap was none other than the Mayor of Valbonne, dressed in a natty little scarf and linen trousers. My 12 year old jumped, my newly 7 year old didn’t, thank god!
I love the fact that this sort of occasion is still possible in these days of stringent health & safety directives. I can think of plenty of countries where parading in narrow streets carrying flames and then being actively encouraged to jump over the fire would be considered too risky for the public; where such a manifestation would be sanitised into something much less spectacular. But luckily for those us in the Valbonne area it still takes place. It takes place on the 24th of June every year. Come and join in the fun!