Saint John’s Fires: The European Midsummer Festivals

In my boyhood, summer was a time of utmost freedom: of adventures in the fields and forests, of swimming pools and lakes, of carefree family trips to the beach and the mountains. It was truly the golden season of childhood, when my friends and I were temporarily liberated from the drudgery of schoolwork and rigid schedules, a time that was rivaled only by Christmas in its atmosphere of magic and joy.

As an adult, all of this changes. Drudgery becomes a year-round affair. Rather than occasions of exploration and wonder, our vacations and weekend getaways often seem more like sad attempts to stupefy ourselves with sunshine and strong drink, in the hopes of escaping our mundane and depressing reality. The heat and brightness of a clear summer’s day, pleasant enough by the poolside or seashore, becomes oppressive on the city sidewalks. As adults we have acquired more vices, tendencies to apathy, sensuality, and irritability that are often exacerbated in the sultry midsummer air. In comparison to other seasons, summer lacks natural aids to contemplation and introspection: invigorating cold weather, falling leaves, and gray snow clouds. In short, in adulthood summer seems more like a few months of licentious languor and stifling heat than the free and wholesome season of childhood.

From a sacred perspective, summer also lacks many of the feasts and fasts that break up the tedium of time’s passage and give order to our lives. In the Christian liturgy, the harvest festivals and remembrances of autumn, and the drama commemorating Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection extending from Advent through Pentecost, gives way to what is traditionally known as “Time After Pentecost” (“ordinary time” in the Novus Ordo). While the period from Advent through Pentecost commemorates Christ’s presence on Earth, and is marked by both celebration and fasting, the season after Pentecost is more concerned with the apostolic age, the age of the Church Militant. It is a time for growing in discipline and virtue, for serving our Lord and our people with renewed vigor. It is perhaps appropriate that it takes place in the summertime, the season of greatest languor, apathy, indulgence, and temptation. It is a season of trial and testing, an attempt to retain the piety and discipline of Lent and the innocence of Christmas during a time when there are few liturgical and spiritual supports.

This is, of course, very different from the summers of childhood. As someone who holds nostalgia in high regard, who seeks not only comfort but also inspiration in the memories of my younger years, who regards children as in many ways nobler than adults, the realization that we cannot really go back is a sobering one. Once we pass into the vale of adulthood, our primordial innocence and purity are irrevocably lost; when an adult acts like a child, self-indulgent and carefree, it is rightly a cause for rebuke – because rather than following the wholesome and innocent desires of the child, they are usually abandoning their responsibilities and catering to their more complex and vicious desires. Thus, the goal of high spirituality is not to remain a child forever, but rather to maintain one’s childlike purity, wonder, and nobility into adult life, to play one’s role in the world without falling prey to the prince of the world. This means that sometimes our reactions must in fact be the opposite of the child: in place of unselfconscious freedom, we must have harsh discipline. At no time is this clearer to me than summertime, hence my ambivalence towards the whole season.

There is a feast day in the summer season that, though not widely observed nowadays (in the United States at least), can serve as an occasion for rededication. The Nativity of John the Baptist, also known as Johnmas, falls on June 24 and marks the birth date of the forerunner of Christ. In fact, John the Baptist is one of only three individuals with feast days commemorating their births rather than deaths, the others being Mary and Christ Himself. This is because, according to tradition, they are the only three individuals born without original sin (John, by virtue of recognizing the Holy Virgin while in his mother’s womb). As most will remember from Sunday School, John the Baptist came into the world as “a voice crying out in the wilderness” to herald the coming of the true king, the savior of mankind, the “light of the world.” As it is written in the Gospel of John,

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light… (1.6-15)

Anonymous (German), Johannes d. Täufer als Kind, c. 1650, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Saint John plays one of the largest roles in the gospels, and we are offered more glimpses into the events of his life than almost anyone save Christ Himself. We are told of his miraculous birth to his aged mother Elizabeth, who was believed to be infertile; we are told of the meeting between Elizabeth and the Mary while both were with child, when John “leapt in the womb” upon sensing the Holy Virgin and was thereby cleansed of sin; we learn of the beginnings of his desert wanderings, clad in animal skins, eating locusts and honey, preaching the necessity of purification and repentance, and offering baptism for the remission of sins; and we see, finally, his baptism of Jesus at the River Jordan, when Saint John recognizes the long-awaited Christ and witnesses the spirit of God descend upon him like a dove. We also learn of Saint John’s sharp tongue dealing with the “brood of vipers” among the religious and political rulers, which would lead to his death at the hands of King Herod – who had the saint beheaded at the behest of a dancing girl.

It is easy to understand why this impressive figure would have such a large and ancient following. He is particularly revered in Italy, where he is the patron of several cities, namely Florence, Cesena, Turin, and Genoa; he was also the patron saint of Malta and the Knights Hospitaller (the Order of Saint John). For this reason, his feast day was once one of the greatest of the year, called the “summer Christmas” due to its significance in salvation history and the festivity which accompanied it, as well as its date six months from Christmas itself. Multiple reasons have been suggested for this dating; most obviously, the gospels state that Saint John was six months older than Jesus, making a June 24th birthday appropriate. It is frequently argued that the Church selected the summer solstice for this feast in order to supplant the midsummer celebrations of pre-Christian religions. Whether or not this was a conscious choice, John’s birth at the summer solstice is fitting; John the Baptist famously said of Christ, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Thus, after John’s nativity the days get shorter in length until the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, when they begin to increase again.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Juan el Bautista como un niño, 1691, National Gallery London

This has led some to associate Saint John with the “Oak King,” a mythical personification of summer who is ascendant until the summer solstice, and Christ with the “Holly King” who waxes powerful throughout the winter months (hence the words of the old carol, “of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown”). Interestingly, in folklore this rivalry involves an eternal battle between the two kings, which is obviously at odds with the Christian understanding of John as a precursor and subservient to Christ. Nevertheless, it points to an interesting paradox: despite proclaiming the coming of Christ and acknowledging him as the Messiah, John never appears to have actually become a disciple of Christ himself, and continued to maintain his own following. He sends his disciplines to pose a question to Christ in the middle of a sermon – “Art though he who should come, or do we look for another?” – which has been interpreted by some scholars as a challenge to Christ’s legitimacy. While the interpretation of Saint John as a rival of Christ was rejected by the early church, it is an interesting point given that their nativities are celebrated at opposite ends of the year, and have a significantly different meaning. Thus, the association of Saint John with the summer solstice and its ancestral traditions is not wholly contrived, but has a theological and even esoteric justification.

Jules Breton, The Feast of Saint John, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art

As a result of this fortuitous timing, several ancestral midsummer traditions were carried over into the celebration of Johnmas. Chief among these is the lighting of bonfires on mountains and hilltops to commemorate the warmth and light of the sun, accompanied by dances, games, and outdoor feasts. In earlier times, and in some places even today, on Saint John’s Eve (June 23rd) these “Saint John’s Fires” could be seen from Norway to Spain, from England to Estonia, and as far away as Brazil and Puerto Rico. As with other fire festivals throughout the year, such as Whitsunday and All Hallows’ Eve (whose traditions reach back to the pre-Christian festivals of Beltane and Samhain), these bonfires served multiple purposes: they were a source of light for all-night revels, a symbol of the sun or of light in the darkness, a ward against witches and demons, and a source of protective power, luck, and bounty for the season ahead. The significance of these fires at Johnmas seems to be particularly related to the Baptist’s role as a light-bearer heralding the coming of Christ. The bonfires are of such ancient origin that the Church has a blessing specifically for them, which consists of sprinkling holy water on the bonfire accompanied by the following prayer: “Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal; through Christ our Lord.” This blessing was followed by a recitation of the hymn Ut Queant Laxis.

Though it is unclear why this particular night was chosen for the setting of the watch, Saint John’s Eve was likely regarded as an appropriate occasion on which to ward off evil from the boundaries of the community, the marching watchmen with their lanterns alight serving a function analogous to that of the bonfires on the hilltops and village squares. The martial character of such a parade is particularly fitting on this day, given the Baptist’s warlike character in opposing corruption and rebuking sin in all its forms.

Setting the Watch on St John the Baptist’s Day. Illustration for Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand (Chatto and Windus, 1877).

Speaking of the general atmosphere of Saint John’s Eve, John Stow writes:

The wealthier sort also before their doors near to the bonfires would set out tables on the vigils furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and to be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. […] On the vigil of St John Baptist and St Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lillies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all night, some hung branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lit at once, which made goodly show. (828)

As Stowe mentions, certain herbs and flowers were associated with the feast of Saint John and believed to have magical properties on that day, which is another correspondence between the Christian holy day and ancestral European midsummer customs. Celebrants would collect many different wild plants and herbs on Saint John’s Eve, most notably Saint John’s wort, but also ferns, rue, rosemary, foxgloves, and elder flowers. These would be arranged and hung on doorways or left outside to be exposed to the morning dew; on the following morning of Saint John’s Day women would wash their faces in this dew, as it was believed to have absorbed medicinal properties. Saint John’s wort itself has been regarded since medieval times as a ward against evil and also as a medicinal herb (and was so used by the Knights Hospitaller, formally the Order of Saint John, which is the likely origin of the herb’s name). However, these herbs were believed to be guarded by the fairy folk, and Saint John’s Eve was held to be the one of the best times to see fairies abroad in the forests and fields. The plenitude of fairy lore on this night forms the background of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which some suggest was written either for an aristocratic wedding or for a royal celebration of Saint John’s Day).

Hans Zatzka, Eflrenreigen, 1859-1945

The following poem by one Thomas Neogorgus, originally in Latin and translated into English by Barnabe Googe in 1570, provides insight into the interplay of fire and medicinal herbs on Saint John’s Feast:

Then doth the joyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
When bonfiers great, with loftie flame, in every towne doe burne:
And yong men round about with maides doe daunce in every streete,
With garlands wrought of Mother-wort, or else with Vervaine sweete
And many other flowres faire, with Violets in their handes
Whereas they all do fondly thinke, that whosoever stands,
And thorow the flowres beholds the flame, his eyes shall feele no paine.
When thus till night they daunced have, they through the fire amaine
With striving mindes doe run, and all their hearbes they cast therin,
And then, with wordes devout and prayers, they solemnely begin,
Desiring God that all their illes may there confounded bee,
Whereby they thinke through all that yeare, from Agues to be free. (846)

Due to Saint John’s initiation of the sacrament of baptism (as it pertains to Christian tradition), it is common for the faithful to bathe in lakes and rivers on this day. Indeed, in pre-Christian belief it was held that natural waters had healing power at midsummer, including springs and, as mentioned above, the morning dew. The purifying properties of water were well-known throughout the ancient world, with some form of ritual ablution performed in most major religions. While John the Baptist’s particular form of baptism, symbolizing individual purification and the remission of sins, was superseded by Christ’s “baptism with fire and spirit” – which represents the sanctification of the individual, the admission into the community of faith, and the infusion of the Holy Spirit – given its origination with Saint John, the physically and spiritually healing properties of water are particularly powerful on the day of his birth.

Prats-Balageur springs, Pyrenees

As with the pre-Reformation customs of Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, these midsummer festivities and supposedly pagan “popish” practices were condemned by the Puritans and their ilk. Though they returned in a somewhat diminished form after the Restoration, they were never the same and have greatly subsided in importance since then. A more private celebration in the Catholic countries, persisting until the latter 20th century at least, is described by the Francis Weiser (S.J.) in 1958:

It should be noted, however, that in the Catholic sections of Europe the combination of the ancient festival of nature lore with the Feast of the Baptist 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 lighted, one of them 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, and finally perform some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music.

Even if the communal aspect of the feast day is now almost nonexistent (in the United States, at least), it is still possible to celebrate Saint John’s Day and the summer solstice in the proper spirit: lighting bonfires, spending the day in wild nature, bathing in rivers and lakes, and feasting and making merry with friends and family. Moreover, like all other feast days, Saint John’s Day holds a particular and highly significant place in the liturgical cycle, or the wheel of the year. To return to an earlier point: in this sultry, hazy, dreamlike season, when the heat saps our energy and clouds our minds, when it is easiest for us to lapse into unthinking sensuality and indulgence, the Feast of Saint John serves as a welcome reminder of our higher calling. As a commemoration of nativity, it is akin to Christmas in serving as a celebration of new life, childhood, and primordial purity. However, contemplation of the life of Saint John shows more clearly what it means to maintain that purity into adulthood, and points to a kind of paradox. While children can appreciate the freedom, natural spontaneity, and even sensuality of summertime innocently, after our initiation into the world of adulthood it takes great effort to regain that state of mind. Spiritual masters and martial artists spend lifetimes trying to recover what the child possesses inherently. While we can never regain the unselfconscious, naïve purity of the child, through a consciously practiced asceticism and militarism we can strive to retain as much of our youthful nobility as we can, while simultaneously striving to overcome the limits of the human condition, sustain what is valuable in our culture, and defend the innocent against those who would do them harm.

John the Baptist serves as an important model in this effort. As mentioned earlier, in Catholic tradition Saint John was one of only three humans born without original sin. He maintained this purity into his adult life in part by living in the wilderness, clothed in animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey. His association with the wilderness was so strong that medieval iconography hints at a relationship with the “Green Man” of woodland lore, and indicates that he – and by extension those who would follow in his path – should be in some sense outside of human society, more attuned to the natural waters and forests (still in their original pristine state) rather than fallen mankind. The wilderness has, of course, traditionally been the favored retreat of ascetics and contemplatives, if only for a time, in order to escape the corrupting influences of civilization and transcend the baser elements of their nature. However, this does not mean we are to abjure human society altogether, for it is our task to defend the innocent and work for spiritual and political restoration. Saint John did this through his prophecy, his teaching, and his practice of baptism, washing away the believer’s sins and enabling him to be born anew, thus reorienting the mind and spirit of his followers away from their fallen nature and towards God. Saint John, moreover, adopted a militaristic spirit of resistance to evil and dedication to his mission, as well as an absolute commitment to truth. He spoke forcefully and honestly against the “brood of vipers” and the corruptions of the day, with all the strength of the holy warrior and the child (as Emerson would say, with “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one”). This warlike commitment to the truth would cost him his life.

Those traits in children that adults usually regard negatively – their tantrums, their obstinacy, their obsession with “fairness,” their desire to know “why” – taken all together make up, when shorn of their petulance and childlike ignorance, the virtue of righteous fury: an idealistic rejection of evil that forms the character of all true knights, kshatriya, and holy warriors. Annoying as this virtue is to the powers that be (and parents), it is essential. Saint John’s Feast, commemorating a saint that personifies this virtue, serves to remind us that maintaining the primordial purity of the child is not simply a matter of joy, innocence, and wonder, though these are desirable traits to preserve; it is also about maintaining one’s youthful idealism – indeed, one’s righteous anger – and rejecting cruelty and evil, apathy and corruption. It is thus a fitting counterpart to the Christmas feast, which emphasizes the celebration of brotherhood and childlike wonder. John the Baptist and his feast day, by contrast, steel us to carry on through the age of the Church Militant as enemies of all evil, just as the bonfires light up the night sky. Living in the wilderness, leading those who would listen away from the corruptions of society and the fallen human condition, going to war against the servants of the enemy, and preparing the way for the rightful King, Saint John is akin to the Dúnedain Ranger of Tolkien’s legendarium. While by no means rejecting the wholesome delights this season has to offer, most beautifully on display at midsummer, we should all strive to emulate the Baptist’s knightly attitude of martial defiance against evil and unwavering devotion to the truth.

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