the most magical night of the year

Did you know that on the eve of St. John’s Mass, you can understand animal language? And if you roll yourself naked in the dew early in the…

Did you know that on the eve of St. John’s Mass, you can understand animal language?

And if you roll yourself naked in the dew early in the morning of St. John’s Mass, it will cure you of diseases, guarantee you’ll never itch and that you’ll be extremely healthy over the next year.

Ethnologists say St. John’s Mass was established for June 24th in lieu of the pagan summer solstice celebration.

And in Iceland, which lies further north than Whitehorse — at around 66 degrees — the magic of the pagan fertility holiday, still lives on and promises a good life.

St. John’s Mass celebrates the birth of St. John.

The date was decided upon by the Church of Rome, which decided eons ago that Christianity should celebrate the birth of Jesus and St. John on what formerly were the two solstice celebrations.

The dates have somewhat become mixed, as the Catholic Church established these days as December 25 and June 24, though Yukoners and Icelanders alike know full well that the shortest and longest days of the year fall upon December 21 and June 21.

This misunderstanding can be explained, though.

Solstice dates change over the centuries, and the Romans did not check with an astrologer before deciding upon the fixed dates.

The actual date of the two Christian icons’ births is beside the point, the Catholic church has said.

As the birth of Jesus has to do with the light’s conquest over darkness, it was fitting to place his birthday on the ancient pagan solstice celebration.

In addition, it’s clear that the acceptance of a new religion is easier if those forced to switch can continue to hold their holidays at the same time of year and in a similar manner as the old religion called for — albeit under new names.

In Europe, St. John’s Mass has traditionally been marked by a summer celebration, with dances, fire and festivities, which often were accompanied by witches, magicians and demons.

For a long time, the church did not bless these celebrations, but despite its attempts to change their meaning, Europeans still hold near-pagan feasts around summer solstice, though much of the partying has become less rowdy.

According to Icelandic folklore, the night before June 24 is one of the four most magical nights of the year.

Cows, for example, speak in human tongues and seals leave their skins so their human form becomes visible.

Beware of the cows, though, because if they see you, you’ll go mad.

If you plan to cast magic spells with herbs, you should gather them this night, and if you are lucky, you’ll find wishing stones and vanishing stones floating in certain mountain lakes.

(It is, though, better to find these and other magical pebbles on Easter Sunday and Whitsunday mornings.)

On this night, you can, for example, quite easily find lock-grass, or four-leaf clovers, which will then open every lock for you if you just place the herb against them.

But be careful to store it wrapped in the hair of a dead man, and place it under your right arm or hang it from a silk thread, which you place around your neck.

You can also gather stinging nettles growing where an innocent man has been killed, and if you whip a magician with this herb shortly after you gather it, he will lose all his power.

It is also considered very healthy to roll  naked in the dew that falls in early morning of St. John’s Mass.

This will cure you of itchiness, along with 18 other physical diseases.

But beware of elves that roam this night in search of human companions. They may not return you to the life you know.

Still, all truly evil things sleep this night, so you are definitely safe from them — or at least, very nearly safe.

An unmarried girl can take a glass, half fill it with water, and then break an egg and place the white into the glass. Then she should leave the glass overnight (and not move it at all!), and on St. John’s Mass morning, she can read from the formations the white has created in the water what job her future husband holds.

One can also sit at a crossroad on St. John’s Mass night, and elves will bring you a lot of desirable goods and food. Those who accept it go mad, but those who successfully ignore the elves will in the morning receive the whole treasure.

There is no traditional feast in Iceland on this magical night, though it’s always placed a special role in the calendar and in people’s minds.

The reason may be that this time of year, most farmers are far too busy with work to take time off for any kind of celebration.

Or perhaps the magic that goes with the night is not quite Christian enough to warrant a celebration, but the promises of a good life live on in Icelanders’ minds.

Plus, few are afraid of demons or the dark at this time due to the long, long daylight.

Aside from that, the lack of trees prevented big fires like other Nordic countries held this night.

Furthermore, Althing, a sort of Icelandic parliament, traditionally began around this time, which prevented big, national festivities like Christmas.

The Icelandic church no longer celebrates the birth of St. John, but the Old Norse pagan religion has begun to hold the night festive anew.

And lately, more Icelanders have begun to celebrate it.

For example, a midnight run is held in Reykjavík.

And if you look closely, you’ll find scores of people out at about 4 a.m., rolling around on whatever green there is to be found, curing themselves of that bothersome itch.

Happy St. John’s Mass!

Sigrún María Kristinsdóttir is an Icelandic/Canadian writer, who until recently lived in the Yukon, but now resides in Reykjavík.