The Feast of St. John the Baptist, Tirgan, Bonfires and “things long dead…”

24 Jun

Malagac07_17161026People dance around a bonfire during Saint John’s night in northern Spanish town of Oviedo, late June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Eloy Alonso)

Today, June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It’s actually one of several.  June 24th is his birthday and August 29th is the day of his death (the whole Herod and Salome and head on a silver platter story).  But the Orthodox Church has a tradition of setting aside the day after a particular holiday as the synaxis of the main “player,” shall we say, in the previous day’s events.  Thus the Feast of the Holy Spirit comes on Monday after Pentecost, which marks its descent and illumination of the Apostles.  December 26th is the synaxis of the Virgin, but there are so many other holidays dedicated to the Virgin that her synaxis the day after Christmas mostly goes unobserved.  But January 7th, the synaxis, is the most important of the three St. John’s days of the Church — not his birthday, nor his death, but the day after Epiphany, January 6th, when he baptized Jesus Christ.  So as opposed the Catholic West, where June 24th, today, is the most important of his feast days, what most Greeks refer to as του Άη Γιαννιού is usually January 7th and most Greek Johns celebrate their namedays on this day as the closing date of the Christmas season.

And yet his birthday is not ignored.  If we remember (or ever knew) Christ and St. John were cousins, as were their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  On March 25th,  the of day the Annunciation, the first thing the Virgin Mary does after the visitation of Gabriel is run — flustered and shocked — to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what had happened to her. (This love between the two teenage Jewish cousins has always touched me.) Elizabeth at the time was already six months pregnant with the young John, and the “babe leapt in her womb” upon hearing that his beloved cousin had been conceived, for it was John’s purpose — the “Forerunner” — to lay the groundwork, baptize Him and set Him on His mission.  Three months later, at the Summer Solstice, John was born.

And so again we have the formidable astrological and astronomical symmetry that the Church most likely inherited through Zoroastrianism.  Exactly three months after the Annunciation on the Vernal Equinox (Nowruz), John is born on the Summer Solstice (Tirgan), and then six months later Jesus Himself is born on the Winter Solstice (Yalda).  According to Iranian friends, Tirgan is not celebrated nearly as widely as Yalda and especially not Nowruz, and even less than the Autumnal Equinox (Mehregan), but is still present as a holiday in the Iranian consciousness.  Apparently there’s a certain symbolic ritual table set-up for Tirgan, like there is for Nowruz and Yalda, and I had located an image of it before but now can’t find it.

Throughout the Christian world it has traditionally been a time for building bonfires, though why this should be so in the middle of the heat and lengthy days of late June and not at the Winter Solstice has always kind of baffled me.  In northern Europe (for our civilization’s perhaps greatest treatment of the season, see Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and starkly intense film version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie by Liv Ullman and starring Colin Farrell — as perhaps our civilization’s greatest treatment of the season), Scandinavia and Russia (oh, yeah, Dostoevsky’s White Nights too) this time of the year has also always been associated with a kind of — especially — erotic license and carnivalesque freedom, or even temporary bouts of lunacy or mental illness, which probably comes from not sleeping for several weeks when the sky only goes dark for about an hour every night.

The bonfire tradition still persists in parts of Greece as well, but as all such practices, is probably slowly being forgotten.  The disappearance of practices like this, and the subsequent impoverishment of humanity’s symbolic consciousness and imagination that these losses entail always saddens me.  As I’ve written before, a friend once said to me: “History is a personal emotion for you, N.”

There’s a song by the recently deceased Demetres Metropanos that I love which refers to St. John’s Eve and its bonfires.  Metropanos was a singer very popular in Greece from the 1970s to the early part of the previous decade.  I’ve never understood why so many people considered him to be slightly skylé as a singer — meaning, oh, I dunno, crudely if not underworldly, working-class.  I think much of his music is lovely.  This song, the lyrics of which I don’t totally understand, meaning not that I don’t understand the Greek; I don’t understand the imagery:  Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά — “The spring (which means wire coil? shock absorbers?  spring, as in both mattress and ‘jump,’ when its the name of a dance in Crete or the Dodecannese? Something else? I don’t know…) led the way forward” is one of them.  But it’s a testimony to the high quality of Greek popular music at the time, that composers and singers (I don’t know who Metropanos’ lyricist was) were unafraid to use the most abstract and associative poetic imagery in their music, even if it was destined for middle and even lower-middle class audiences. as opposed to the lyrics of rebetika, which often consist of mostly repetitive, “tough-guy,” metallic jangling.

The lyrics, in Greek:

Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά
κι ο μάγκας τοίχο τοίχο
δεν έτυχε στα χρόνια αυτά
τίποτα να πετύχω

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

Με βάλαν πάνω στην κορφή
στ’ αγριεμένο κύμα
στης Σμύρνης την καταστροφή
στ’ άδικο και στο κρίμα

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

(Again, very difficult, odd to translate)

The spring led the way
With the “tough guy” (manga, maganda) hugging the wall
I never managed, in all these years, to accomplish anything.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
They set me up on top,
with the furious waves,
At the destruction of Smyrna,
Amidst the injustice and the pity.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
“…things that are long dead…”
And the song:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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