St John the Baptist's Day
June 24: The Christian Midsummer Festival
June 24, marking the birth of Saint John the Baptist, is St John the Baptist's Day, a major Christian Feast. It is one of the "quarter days", signalling the beginning of each quarter of the year and welcoming each of the four seasons. These holidays were communally celebrated during the "Age of Faith", reassigned from already established astrologically-based pagan festivities. The other quarter days are Christmas on December 25, Lady Day (Annunciation) on March 25 and Michaelmas on September 29.
According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus Christ (the great soul that Christians believe to be the Son of God, the redeemer, or messiah). As the forerunner of the messiah, John is a very important saint. Jesus once said of his cousin:
"Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist"
The birth of Jesus is celebrated at Christmas in December—at the Winter Solstice, marking the birth of the Sun, as the Sun begins to grow in light. The Bible indicates that John was born six months before Jesus (Luke 1:26), so his birth celebrates the Summer Solstice, as the Sun begins to diminish in light. John understood that his role was to prepare the way for Christ, and then to step aside: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). This is a clear reference to the astrological key that, when turned in the lock, opens the door to a deeper understanding of the nature of religion.
According to the "Saints" section of the Catholic on line resource John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary (the mother of Jesus) who visited her. He was probably born at Ain-Karim, southwest of Jerusalem, after the Angel Gabriel had told Zachary that his wife would bear a child even though she was an old woman.
John apparently lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27. When he was thirty, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism "for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand". He attracted large crowds, and when Christ came to him, John recognized Him as the Messiah and baptized Him, saying, "It is I who need baptism from You".
The Fateful Request of Salome
When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan valley. Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machærus Fortress on the Dead Sea. John had denounced his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half-brother Philip.
John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother. John inspired many of his followers to follow Christ when he designated Him "the Lamb of God", among them the apostles Andrew and John, who came to know Christ through John's preaching. John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor of the Messiah. His feast day is June 24th, designated as a Solemnity (most important festival) by the Catholic Church and the feast for his beheading is August 29th, though this is considered strangely unimportant by comparison and so draws our attention to the importance of the date of the birthday, namely the solstice (other saints are usually commemorated on the day of their martyrdom, rather than their birth).
The symbolic role for John in Christianity is to act as the "tanist" or sacrifical twin for Jesus: the dark twin of the summer solstice (John) being replaced by the light twin at the winter solstice (Jesus).
Virgin and Child Enthroned between St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, by Sandro Botticelli
Pagan religion is packed with such sets of twins, as discussed in detail in The White Goddess, a seminal work by Robert Graves. The idea of the eternal interaction of the twin solar heroes, or "Sons of the Sun" in ancient religion and how this image is expressed in Christianity is also explored on line in Sun Gods as Atoning Saviours by M. D. Magee.
It should also be noted that St John the Baptist, whose festive day is June 24, is one of the two patron saints of the Masonic Lodge, or the Order of Freemasonry, which is perhaps the world's largest "secret society". The other patron of the Order is St John the Evangelist, whose festival occurs on December 27, six months later. According to McCoy's Masonic Dictionary, participation in the Festival of St. John at midsummer is a duty of every Mason. It functions as a connection between the past and the future. The two saints stand at either end of the spectrum marked by the solstices, the doorways of light and dark, of zeal and of learning. These two festivals bear the names of Christian saints, but in ages past they bore other names, yet standing to this day as markers for the solstices. In the words of Masonic Orator, Phillip Elam:
"Masonry adopted these festivals and the Christian names, but has taken away the Christian dogma, and made their observance universal for all men of all beliefs.
St. John's Day, June 24, symbolically marks the summer solstice, when nature attains the zenith of light and life and joy. St. John's day in winter, December 27, symbolizes the turn of the sun's farthest journey – the attainment of wisdom, the rewards of a well-spent life, and love toward one's fellow man."
Setting the Watch
In ancient times, midsummer's day was an occasion to pay homage to water, fire and plants. It was also a time to cleanse one's soul as well as to celebrate the summer solstice. However, over time, this holiday has lost most of its sacral meaning and only its various festive elements remain.
In England, people used to celebrate St. John's Eve by setting great bonfires after sunset. This was known as 'setting the watch' and men, women and children would jump through these bonfires for luck. The streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cresset lamps set on poles as they went from one bonfire to the next. These wandering, garlanded bands were called a 'marching watch'. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobby-horse riders.
In northern countries such as Scandinavia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania the summer solstice is still celebrated on this day. Traditionally, the evening festivities last the entire night, because the Sun does not set at this time in far northern latitudes. During this celebration men wear crowns of oak leaves and women put on wreaths of wild flowers. A bonfire is built, around which the night's activities take place.
In Sweden, flowers are an important aspect of the Midsummer festival. Girls and women weave wreaths of flowers to wear in their hair for the day. Wreaths or bouquets are traditionally made with seven or nine different types of wildflowers. Homes are similarly decorated: a flower wreath may be hung from the ceiling to bring blessing to the house and a pair of young birch branches put at the front door.
Family and friends get together and feast on pickled herring, boiled potatoes, sour cream, crisp bread, beer and schnapps, followed by strawberries or fresh fruit for dessert. After the meal, people dance around a Maypole made of birch branches and covered with flowers. They sing traditional songs, play games and continue celebrating into the next day (the sun doesn't set in Scandinavia at this time of year!). Huge crosses called Midsommarstoeng are also constructed, like the Maypole, from birch branches and covered with leaves and flowers. A flower wreath may be hung on both sides of the cross, from the horizontal beam.
Celebration of this holiday traditionally began the night before, since in ancient times days were reckoned from evening to evening, rather than from midnight to midnight as we do now (hence the prominence of "eve's", as in Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, Halloween, etc). St. John's Eve, June 23, was sometimes known as Bonfire Night in Ireland. Up to the mid-20th century, Irish Catholics lit large communal bonfires at sunset on this day, or small family fires outside their houses. An excellent discussion of the Midsummer Fires (an extract from The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer) can be read here.
As kindly pointed out to me by Jeanine Mauriceau, St John the Baptist is also the patron saint of French Canadians and of the province of Québec. Québec's Fête Nationale (National Holiday) on St-Jean-Baptiste's Day sees the largest parade of the year in Montreal. St Jean Baptiste is honoured with festivals, bonfires, costuming and parties. Up until the late 1960s, all work stopped for a few days prior, as each parish prepared a procession with a child dressed as a young St Jean, usually holding a lamb. The traditional meal at the St Jean is a type of chicken pot pie, and caramel eaten in front of the bonfires. The religious elements have nowadays diminished in importance, but the Québec government funds concert extravaganzas on this day in several of Québec's cities. Celebrations are also held in Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as in many parts of Louisiana. St Jean Baptiste is also the patron saint of Newfoundland and of some regions of France where similar traditions and festivities are maintained to this day.
Interestingly, before the French Revolution, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was a very important event in France. On St John's Eve, the king himself used to light a great Saint-Jean bonfire. According to Patrick Couture, this tradition was brought to New France by the first colonists. The first Saint-Jean bonfires in New France date back to 1638. They were accompanied by dancing and singing in every village along the Saint-Laurent river.
The communal bonfires were traditionally piled very high with wood, sticks, dry brambles, etc. Each household would contribute fuel for the fire. At dusk the whole town would gather around the pile, and an elderly man in the community would light the bonfire while saying the following prayer:
"In honour of God and of St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."
The elders then led everyone in praying a decade or more of the Rosary, to obtain God's blessing on their crops and a bountiful harvest. Sometimes a parish priest would attend and lead the prayers. Everyone would walk clockwise around the bonfire while praying the Rosary. The bonfires were also used as places to reverently dispose of old and broken sacramentals, such as rosaries, statues and scapulars (burning is the proper way to dispose of some blessed items).
After the prayers, the merriment would begin: dancing, singing, shouting, blowing horns, storytelling, instrumental solos, etc. The bonfire was tended until long after midnight; as it burned down, men would begin jumping over the low fire, and boys might grab burning sticks and throw them into the air to watch the sparks fly.
Sometimes young men would walk through the fields holding torches lighted from the fire; this was believed to bring God's blessing on the fields and protect the crops from harm. After the fire burned out, households would carry the ashes home to sprinkle on the four corners of the fields to bless their crops, and maybe lay an ember or two from the bonfire on their hearth.
The small family fires were more subdued and prayerful, with prayers for God's blessing and protection on flocks, fields and members of the household. While the large communal bonfires seem to have ceased by the mid-twentieth century, these small fires may still occur in remote parts of Ireland.
Traditionally, people gathered in beautiful spots such as on hilltops or by rivers to feast and honour men named John. A large bonfire and wheel hub on a post were set afire. It was thought that the wider the area that was illuminated by the fire, the better the harvest would be. Young people gathered grasses with which they predicted their futures. Girls also wore wreaths and later set them afloat on rivers and lakes to find out if they would marry or not in the following year. Unmarried young men and women sang, danced and jumped over the remains of the bonfire until daybreak. St. John's Day dew was thought to have many magical healing properties. The dew was reputedly also used by village sorceresses for malevolent purposes—for preventing cows from giving milk.
The Cardinal Cross
So the Christian Feast of St John has roots in a pagan past, became a major holiday during the Catholic ascendancy, and has now perhaps begun to revert to the spirit of its origins. The essential, seasonal nature of the festivity is deeply ingrained in our culture, a fact that was not lost upon the early leaders of the church, as they managed the transition from the ancient pagan ways to the newer Christian dispensation. There is now a fairly extensive outline of national expressions of the Midsummer Festival on Wikipedia, which is worth a look.
Christian Feasts replaced their pagan competitors, smoothing the pathway to the new faith. Lady Day marks the Vernal Equinox, St John's Day marks the Summer Solstice, Michaelmas the Autumnal Equinox and Christmas the Winter Solstice. This is the cardinal cross that lies at the heart of tropical astrology—and at the centre of the Christian system. The astrological symbolism is deep, and underpins our archetypal responses to all four of the quarter day celebrations.
For more detail on the pagan origins of Saint John the Baptists's Day, check out Hislop's explanations on line at The Two Babylons. Although Hislop is of the school of Christian thought that holds that the pagan origins of Christian festivals is evidence of the deceptive work of the devil, his detailed scholarship is well worth reading.
Summer Festivals: St John's Day, Folk Customs of the Carpatho-Rusyns. This is an extensive article and well worth a look.
Saint-John-Baptiste Day, an interesting insight into St Jean celebrations, especially in French Canada. This is part of a website by Patrick Couture on the culture of Quebec.
St John the Baptist, Catholic Online. This is part of a huge resource on Catholicism, with excellent calendars for feast days, saints, patron saints, angels etc.
The Witches' Sabbats, a valuable on line collection of articles by Mike Nichols on the important pagan festivals
J. G. Frazer: The Golden Bough, MacMillan & Co. Ltd, London, 1923. This is also available on line at The Golden Bough, thanks to Sacred Texts.
A. Hislop: The Two Babylons, Loizeaux Brothers; 2nd edition (July 1990). Now out of print, see The Two Babylons on line
M. D. Magee Sun Gods as Atoning Saviours an online resource investigating the origins of Christian and Jewish teachings
B. G. Walker: The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row, NY 1983
R. Graves: The White Goddess, Faber & Faber, London 1961