By: Deacon Marques Silva
Happy birthday, Saint John the Baptist! Typically the Church calendar commemorates the death of a saint because it is upon that day that they are birthed into heaven. There are two exceptions to that rule on the Church calendar: the births of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8) and John the Baptist. To me, at least, celebrating the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems logical since she was not only conceived without Original Sin, but also the mother of our Lord.
We celebrate his birthday because his birth anticipates the birth of our Savior. The two great mysteries of the year are that of the Incarnation and Redemption. Of the two, the mystery of Redemption holds primacy, but the Church does not neglect the mystery of the Incarnation. From the Solemnity of the Incarnation, we mark the two anticipatory feasts that illuminate our faith:
- Birth of John the Baptist (June 24) – for he was six months older than our Lord
- Annunciation (March 25) – nine moths prior to the birth of our Lord
The Council of Agde, in 506 A.D., listed the Nativity of Saint John among the highest feasts of the year. In 1022 A.D., a synod in Seligenstadt, Germany, prescribed a 14-day fasting and abstinence period in preparation for the Feast (this was never a universal discipline in the Church).
As you know, I love learning about customs that are linked with liturgical seasons and feasts. The People of God have marked this Feast with various traditions and celebrations. Among them, Father Wieser notes:
- All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lit on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his Feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fjords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain (where they are called Hogueras). They were an ancient symbol of the warmth and light of the sun which the forefathers greeted at the beginning of summer. In many places, great celebrations are held with dances, games, and outdoor meals.
- Fishermen from Brittany keep this custom even while far out at sea in the Arctic Ocean. They hoist a barrel filled with cast-off clothing to the tip of the mainsail yard and set the contents on fire. All ships of the fishing fleet light up at the same time, about 8 o’clock in the evening. The men gather around the mast, pray and sing. Afterward, they celebrate in their quarters, and the captain gives each crew member double pay.
- Many small fires in the valleys and plains are lit. People gather around, jump through the flames, and sing traditional songs in praise of the saint or of summer. This custom is based on the pre-Christian “need fires” (niedfyr, nodfyr), which were believed to cleanse, cure, and immunize people from all kinds of disease, curses, and dangers.
- In Spain, these smaller fires (fogatas) are lighted in the streets of towns and cities, everybody contributing some old furniture or other wood, while children jump over the flames.
- In Brest, France, the bonfires are replaced by torches that people throw in the air. In other districts of France, they cover wagon wheels with straw, then set them on fire with a blessed candle and roll them down the hill slopes.
- As the first day of summer, Saint John’s Day is considered in ancient folklore one of the great “charmed” festivals of the year. Hidden treasures are said to lie open in lonely places, waiting for the lucky finder. Divining rods should be cut on this day. Herbs are given unusual powers of healing, which they retain if they are plucked during the night of the Feast. In Germany, they call these herbs Johanneskraut (Saint John’s herbs), and people bring them to church for a special blessing.
- In Scandinavia and in the Slavic countries, it is an ancient superstition that on Saint John’s Day witches and demons are allowed to roam the earth. As at Halloween, children go the rounds and demand “treats,” straw figures are thrown into the flames, and much noise is made to drive the demons away.
- Catholic sections of Europe combine the ancient festival of nature lore with the Feast of the Baptist that has resulted in a tradition of dignified celebration, which has come down to our day. People gather around the fireplace, dressed in their national or local costumes, and sing their beautiful ancient songs. When the fire is lit, one of these participants recites a poem that expresses the thought of the Feast. Then they pray together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer may be blessed in homes, fields, and country, before finally performing some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music.
Saint John was the herald of our Lord and knew that he was the voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3 and Matthew 3:3). He certainly embodies the Scripture verse: “Zeal for thy house consumes me…” (Psalm 69:9). More importantly, may we learn from his example and say with him: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).
 Father Wieser, CatholicCulture.org, The Birth of John the Baptist, www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=1107 (June 24, 2010).