Category Archives: St. John’s Day

Midsummer & St. John’s Eve

Just as the Northern Hemisphere’s midwinter solstice is accompanied a few days later by Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so our midsummer solstice is accompanied a few days later by St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day, and we find ourselves today at the polar opposite of Yuletide and Christmas. The solstices are a matter of celestial mechanics––the workings of our planet orbiting the sun on a tilted axis. That tilt of 23.5 degrees is all it takes to bring us our seasons. The tilt means that as we travel around the sun, our north/south hemispheres receive different amounts of sunlight. And at this time of year, the hemisphere that is pointed toward the sun (Northern) is in summer, the hemisphere that is pointed away (Southern) is in winter. The difference in sunlight across the planet ranges from none at the equator to the extreme at the two poles. Places like Scandinavia and Alaska and Northern Canada right now are experiencing incredibly long days, the days that earn these places nicknames like “Land of the Midnight Sun,” while Antarctica is in almost constant darkness.

Oh but let’s get back to Christmas and St. John’s Day. Historically, the Church has rarely been concerned about celebrating birthdays. The feast days of saints are all focused on when they died––their birthdate into the next world. But there are three cases where they do focus on earthly birthdays: with Mary, whose birth was placed near to the autumnal equinox (September 8, at the grape harvest), and Jesus, whose birth was placed at the midwinter solstice (“Jesus, the Light of the World” (as the song goes) comes at the darkest time of year). At the midsummer solstice, we have John the Baptist, born just as light begins to wane. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we read in John 3:30. And so there: the beautiful metaphoric connexions that the early Church loved, linking the story of Christ to the natural rhythm and wheel of the year.

Midsummer and St. John’s Day are not much celebrated in the States, much to our loss. But in other places, St. John’s Eve is a night to spend out in the open air. In Sweden, where this night is called Juhannus, it is a night for bonfires and meals of pickled herring and new potatoes with sour cream. Further south in Italy bonfires are also part of the night, but the meals vary by region. In Rome, the Midsummer meal centers around snails; local belief holds that eating snails, horned as they are like devils, will protect you from Midsummer mischief of the Midsummer Night’s Dream variety. In the towns of Northern Italy, Midsummer is a time to break out balsamic vinegar, aged as long as a hundred years. Every part of the meal has some of this nectar of the gods in it, for the lore of the land says that this is the time of year when the must enters the grape on the vine, and it is the must that will eventually become both the wine and the balsamic vinegar––a transformative magic all its own. The must is the juice, crucial to both, for good balsamic vinegar is made from must just as is wine. It is then aged all those years in casks of various types of woods: at least a dozen years, but, as mentioned above, sometimes a hundred years or more.

St. John’s Eve has a long history in popular folklore as a portal night, a night when the pathways between worlds is most permeable. It is a night to go and gather plants for their magical properties: fern seed, for example, and St. John’s Wort. The latter will protect you from evil, the former, if gathered properly, is believed to confer the power of invisibility. But not without some peril: the seeds are fiercely guarded by the fairy folk who know more of these secrets than do we. The magical properties of plants also play into Shakespeare’s comedy. Have you ever wondered what is the “herb” (a little western flower, Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound) that Oberon instructs Puck to fetch and squeeze the juice of onto the eyelids of Titania and then of the lovers? Well, these are the things I wonder about. Oberon goes on to tell us that maidens call it “love-in-idleness,” but in modern terms it turns out the herb is a flower known as Viola Tricolor, also known as Heartsease or Wild Pansy. You may have some blooming now in your summer garden. So much magic, so close to home.

As for the portals on this portal night: our mostly logical 21st century minds don’t subscribe much to magic, but magic can take many forms and can mean different things to different people. If you want to think of magic in terms of calling down joy to your life, in transforming the events of each day into positivity through an open and giving attitude, well, I am all for that magic. This is a powerful alchemy, a magic we all have access to. There are places, though, where folks insist they run into magic of a more ethereal kind, still today in this logical world we live in. Those in Ireland and Britain have their faeries; the Icelanders have their Huldufólk; the Finns, who are so prominent here in Lake Worth, have their Haltijas. And of course we have Shakespeare. I happen to love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I just can’t get enough of it. Some scholars place the action of Shakespeare’s play at May Eve, but this is not an idea with which I agree, and I firmly believe our pal Will set the play squarely in the heart of the mysteries of St. John’s Eve.

Be that as it may, the night passes and St. John’s Eve ushers in St. John’s Day on the 24th. As for St. John himself, he is sacred to Puerto Rico, Québec, and Newfoundland. He is a patron saint of beekeepers, tailors, innkeepers, and printers like me. Tradition would have us cut and fashion divining rods on his day, for hidden treasures are thought to reveal themselves on St. John’s Day. Explore lonely places, it is said, and there these treasures shall be, awaiting any lucky finder. The magic passes with the day. It is customary to eat strawberries on St. John’s Day, and in Estonia and Finland, a special St. John’s Day cheese is made, flavored with caraway seeds. Luckily no one has made a tradition of eating the foods that St. John himself is known to have eaten: “And his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Try serving that at your next Midsummer dinner and watch your guests clear out in a hurry.

Image: The start of an early St. John’s Eve fire in the yard, June 22, looking a bit like a wheel.

 

And Now Light Begins to Wane

Midsummer

All of our midsummer night’s revels and midsummer night’s dreaming of last night lead up to today: St. John’s Day, marking the birth of St. John the Baptist. We don’t typically celebrate the births of saints; all the other saints’ days mark the date of their deaths. But things are different with Mary and with John the Baptist. For them, we celebrate both. The Church early on placed the birth of John the Baptist at the Midsummer solstice and the birth of Jesus Christ at the Midwinter solstice. John is born at Midsummer, just as light begins to decrease. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we read in John 3:30. Conversely, Christ is born at Midwinter, just as light begins to increase. Again, in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.”

St. John is sacred to Puerto Rico, Québec, and Newfoundland. He is a patron saint of tailors, innkeepers, and printers like me. Tradition would have us cut and fashion divining rods on his day, for hidden treasures are thought to reveal themselves on St. John’s Day. Explore lonely places, it is said, and there these treasures shall be, awaiting any lucky finder. The magic passes with the day.

It is customary to eat strawberries on St. John’s Day, and in Estonia and Finland, a special St. John’s Day cheese is made, flavored with caraway seeds. Luckily no one has made a tradition of eating the foods that St. John himself is known to have eaten: “And his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Try serving that at your next Midsummer dinner and watch your guests clear out in a hurry.

Image: Our St. John’s Eve bonfire last night, welcoming Old Midsummer. There may have been some Cognac involved. Afterward, I bound a pile of books and then cobbled together this Book of Days chapter. That may have been a result of the coffee before the cognac. The pile of books? Copies of Putting Up Mangoes, our tale of overwhelming subtropical abundance, which we’ll be featuring at the Midsummer Makers Marketplace at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts tomorrow, Saturday June 25, from 10 AM to 4 PM. If you come by, do say hello. Follow the roadsigns on campus to easy free parking. Admission is free, too!

 

St. John’s Day

St_John_the_baptist_-_Leonardo_Da_Vinci

Solstice celebrations have a long history… all the way back to prehistory, in fact. And you can count on things like this, handed down through the generations, to be fiercely protected. And so it was with people and the early Church as entire empires and city-states began converting to Christianity in those formative years. Old ways persisted a long time and still do, but the early Church opted to rededicate many of these celebrations. The Church placed the birth of Jesus Christ at the winter solstice and the birth of John the Baptist, who prepared his way, at the summer solstice, keeping those solstice celebrations in place but repurposing them to the celebrations we honor today.

Consider the imagery: John is born at Midsummer, just as light begins to decrease. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we read in John 3:30. Conversely, Christ is born at Midwinter, just as light begins to increase. Again, in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.” No one knows for sure the exact dates of birth of these two historical figures, but the Church knew what it was doing when it chose these dates, there’s no doubt. The message is a powerful one, especially when you go back to simpler times, before electricity: We were much more attuned to the patterns of increasing and decreasing sunlight in the past.

Most of the Midsummer traditions have to do with St. John’s Eve, which was last night. Still, one tradition is to cut divining rods on this day. Hidden treasures are also thought to reveal themselves on St. John’s Day (perhaps St. Anthony’s influence from earlier in the month?). Explore lonely places, it is said, and there these treasures shall be, awaiting any lucky finder. The magic passes with the day.

St. John the Baptist is unusual in that he is the only saint for which we celebrate his birth (today) in addition to his death (August 29). So you’ll see his name come around again in late summer. St. John is sacred to Puerto Rico, Québec and Newfoundland. He is a patron saint of tailors, innkeepers, and printers like me. It is customary to eat strawberries on his feast day, and in Estonia and Finland, a special St. John’s Day cheese is made, flavored with caraway seeds. Luckily no one has made a tradition of eating the foods that St. John himself is known to have eaten: “And his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Try serving that at your next Midsummer dinner and watch your guests clear out in a hurry.

As with Christmas at the opposite solstice, it is the eve of the feast that is charged with more magic and mystery. And especially so with St. John’s Eve. The fires of people across the planet were blazing last night, lighting the midsummer night, calling down the power of the sun, marking our celebrations across time and geography.

 

Image: St. John the Baptist by Leonardo DaVinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.