The Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptizer (24 June), aka St. John's Day, is one of the quarter days, four Catholic holidays at the beginning of each season of the year, which were communally celebrated during the Age of Faith. The other quarter days are Christmas, Lady Day (Annunciation) and Michaelmas (Sept 29).
The Forerunner of the Messiah is a very important saint; Eastern Christians consider him the greatest saint after the Holy Mother of God (though Western Christians tend to give that distinction to St. Joseph). Our Lord 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" (Mt. 11:11).
St. John himself humbly 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). How fitting it is that his feast should fall during the time when the days begin to slowly decrease, after the summer solstice.
St. John's Eve in Ireland
Celebration of this holiday traditionally began the night before. 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.
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 honor 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 merryment would begin: dancing, singing shouting, blowing horns, storytelling, instrumental solos, etc. The bonfire was tended until long after midnight; as it burned down, some 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 (I do not recommend that anyone copy the latter two activities!)
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.
Some Suggestions for a Modern Celebration of St. John's Eve (either to revive the quarter days or as a Nameday celebration for a child named John):
Catholics in rural areas could perhaps build a bonfire, though proper precautions should naturally be taken when dealing with Brother Fire (I don't recommend trying to jump over it!) Catholics in urban and suburban areas could imitate the small household fires by lighting the family barbeque grill at sunset while saying the traditional prayers.
The family might wish set up a statue, ikon or picture of St. John the Baptizer on a table a safe distance away from the fire, along with other symbols of the saint, such as a lamb, a banner with the words "Ecce Agnus Dei" on it, or a scallop seashell (symbol of baptism). After lighting the fire, family members could pray the rosary, sing hymns and read Scripture passages about St. John, pray the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and/or other prayers in honor of the Forerunner of the Messiah.
The following is an excerpt from the book My Nameday, Come for Dessert containing suggested family prayers for St. John's Eve:
Blessing of a bonfire. This blessing may be conferred by the priest outside of the church on the vigil of St. John's feast. A parent may lead the prayer after lighting a family bonfire.
Father: O Lord God, Father almighty, unfailing ray and 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.
Family prayers on the vigil.
Father: I summoned you from your father's house, says the Lord, and made you shepherd of My people
All: I granted you such renown as comes only to the greatest on earth, and no longer did your enemies trouble you.
Father: From the writings of St. Ambrose:
Holy Scripture teaches us to praise not only the lives of those whom we honor, but also the lives of their parents. Then that flawless purity which has been handed down to them as an inheritance will stand out even more clearly in those whom we would praise. What other intention can the evangelist have had in the passage of the Gospel read today, save that of making John the Baptist renowned for his parents as well as for his miracles, his way of life, his mission and his death?
All: Our hearts must wait in readiness on the Lord and serve Him only. Then will He deliver us from our enemies' power.
Father: Let us pray. Grant, almighty God, that Your household may tread the path of salvation, and by following the counsel of John the Precursor, come safely to Him whose coming he foretold, Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You forever.
All: Amen. Christ conquers, Christ reigns!
From the book My Nameday, Come for Dessert (Warning: This links to a text of the entire book online, and it is LONG!)Next: Festivities on Saint John's Day
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