This day is widely celebrated by Christian communities all over the world as the birthday of Saint John. Also known as the Nativity of John the Baptist, this day is annually observed on the 24th of June i.e. six months prior to Christmas.
St. John was a prophet who had forecasted the coming of Jesus and had later also baptized him in the Jordan River. He was considered to be the voice that prepared the world for Jesus Christ.
When Christianity started to spread through France, the celebrations of the beginning of summer solstice were merged with the feast of St. John day. St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Turin.
His death anniversary i.e. 29th of August is marked by Roman Catholic churches and they have a feast on that day too. The Feast of John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian Church and it anticipates the feast of Christmas.
In the first chapter of Gospel of Luke, we find that Zachary, the father of John the Baptist and a Jewish priest is approached by an angel who tells him that his wife Elizabeth is going to give birth to a boy in spite of being well beyond the age of child-bearing.
The archangel Gabriel also told him that they should name the child ‘John’. Zachary was not able to believe the angel straight away and could not speak until John was born. Mother Mary had gone to congratulate her cousin Elizabeth on her pregnancy when she herself was carrying Jesus in her womb. It’s said that John had leaped with joy in his mother’s womb at the greeting of Mary. St. John was born six months prior to the birth of Jesus i.e. Christmas and hence the feast is celebrated on the assigned date.
He is described in the Gospel to be a relative of Jesus and was the one who led a baptism movement at the Jordan River. He is mostly known for predicting the ‘Messiah’ that foretold the coming of Jesus Christ. John had condemned King Herod for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother because of which John was imprisoned.
This marriage was unlawful and violated the Old Testament Law. On King Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter by the name Salome had danced and entertained his guests. He was so pleased with her dancing that he promised to grant her anything she wanted. On her mother’s advice she asked for Saint John’s head on a platter. Though, Herod was shocked, he unwillingly agreed and Saint John was beheaded at the fort of Machaerus.
Celebration And Traditions
Generally, a feast is held on the death anniversary of a Saint because that day specifically marks his or her entry into heaven. There are but just two exceptions to this ritual where the feast is held on the day of birth. These refer to the feasts observed on the birthday of Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist.
This may not be a nationally acclaimed holiday outside of Quebec but it’s an important liturgical feast day in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican Churches. It’s a popular feast day in many European countries as its date coincides with old pagan holidays that celebrate the oncoming of Summer Solstice. It’s celebrated as a religious feast day in countries like Sweden, Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania and Norway. In the Eastern Christian Churches, St. John the Baptist is known by the name St. John the Forerunner which denotes that his purpose was to pave the way for Jesus Christ. There is a major feast on 24th of June in these churches which is celebrated with an All-Night Vigil and followed by an After-feast the next day.
It was believed that during summer solstice evil spirits roamed freely and hence bonfires are lit on the mountains and hill tops on the eve of the feast to ward them off. These bonfires are called “Saint John’s Fires”. Divining Rods are said to be cut on this day and straw figures are sacrificed into fires. A certain type of herb called St. John’s herbs are believed to show unusual healing powers especially if they are plucked during the night of the feast. People take these to churches for a special blessing while children do the rounds and demand “treats” from the houses in the neighborhood.