This is the first part of three on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist/Midsummer Day
June 24th is celebrated as St. John’s Day, also called the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This festival is part of the cycle of liturgical dates tied to the date of Christmas.
The early Church had already established December 25th as the liturgical festival of the Nativity of Christ. For example, this is demonstrated by documents from:
- before 215 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt (St. Clement’s Stromata),
- before 235 A.D. in Rome (Hippolytus of Rome writes of the festival in his Chronicon and in his Commentary on Daniel),
- and by 270 A.D. on the northern coast of Turkey (Gregory Thaumaturgus preached December 25th Christmas sermons).
(resources here and here)
There is natural relationship between the dates of John’s birth and the birth of Christ shown in the text on the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38. After describing the significance of the conception of John, Luke goes on to the next and more significant event:
26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary….
35 And the angel answered and said to her, “… 36 Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.”
The Biblical text does not necessarily mean that the conceptions and births of John and Jesus were exactly six months apart to the day. But this arrangement provided an easy to remember date for the celebration of St. John the Baptizer’s nativity.
But Isn’t 6 Months Before Christmas June 25th?
So, if John’s birth is celebrated 6 months before Christ’s, then why is the feast on the 24th rather than the 25th of June? This difference is likely the result of the method the Roman Julian calendar used for writing dates. In the Julian calendar there were three parts of the month that were used as anchor dates. The beginning of the month was called the Kalends, the first quarter of the month was called the Nones, and the middle of the month was called the Ides. So March 3rd would be ante diem V Non. Mart. or 3 days before the Nones of March. The count of the days was inclusive, that is, both the start day and the end day were included in the count. (Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World p. 43)
Christmas was ante diem VIII Kal. Jan. or 8 days prior to the Kalends of January, that is December 25th. In both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars December has 31 days. June, however has 30 days, and 8 days prior to the Kalends of July is June 24th.
Origins of St. John’s Day.
A reliquary had been established for John’s remains before the time of Julian the Apostate, who destroyed that church and tried to destroy the remains of John in 362 A.D. ( Theodoret Eccl. Hist, 3, p. 96 NPNF2-3).
Six different sermons on the festival of the Nativity of St. John by St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) survive today. (MPL 38, Sermons 287-293). After these there is a collection seven of Augustine’s sermons on the Day of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles–June 29th (MPL 38, Sermons 295-299C).
It is important to demonstrate here also this early (before 430 A.D.) celebration of the the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29th had already been established. This feast is also often brought into the argument against the Christian liturgical heritage. But even before Augustine the Chronography of 354 lists the martyrdom of Peter and Paul for June 29th along with Christmas on Dec. 25th.
Augustine’s sermons are the earliest testimony I have found of a Church Father using the analogy of the solstices with reference to John and Christ (for example one of his Christmas Dec 25th sermon: DCO sermon 194:2) and a June 24th sermon DCO sermon 287:4) The passage to which Augustine refers in both of these is John 3:30, John’s confession of the Christ to those who were disputing about John’s identity: “He must increase, I must decrease.” Augustine draws this illustration:
Natus est Ioannes hodie:
ab hodierno minuuntur dies.
Natus est Christus octavo calendas ianuarias:
ab illo die crescunt dies.
Ioannes in passione capite est diminutus,
Christus in ligno est exaltatus. (sermo 287:4)
John is born today:
from this day the days diminish.
Christ is born on the 8 Kalends of January (Dec. 25th):
from that day the days continue to grow.
John was diminished through his suffering by the loss of his head,
Christ was exalted through his suffering on the tree.
By the time bishops met in France for the Council of Agde in 506 A.D. the festival of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist had been widely established throughout the Eastern and Western Church.
What is significant is the conspicuous absence of preaching against the observance of the summer solstice. Augustine and those before him had no problem preaching and writing voluminously against pagan festivals and practices. So when a supposedly ancient and universal festival is not even mentioned by these authors, the absence becomes an important point of evidence.
In isolation this absence might not be significant, if all the rest of the societies in Europe through time spoke about such a festival.
The Arguments Against Christian Holy Days
There are two basic fronts in the arguments made against Christian Historic Liturgical Holy days.
The first battle front comes from Protestantism’s rabid anti-Roman Catholic groups. These groups equated any historical liturgical practice of the Church which came down through Roman Catholicism as non-Christian or pagan. A great deal of anti-Roman Catholic writing on these topics was produced by the English Reformation. The periods of going struggle between the legal status of Protestantism versus Roman Catholicism in the British Empire produced not only many writings but also saw the development and creation of both anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant ritual and tradition. Some of these developments were in turn presented as evidence of pagan origination.
The second battle front comes out of the ascendency of Neopaganism and Wicca from the 1920s to the present. Originating mainly in the early part of the 20th century these groups asserted that Christianity was a new invention, that paganism is the “old religion” which Christianity sought to suppress.
The Neopagans and Wiccans tend to recycle the arguments used by the radical Reformation in England. They also tend to augment these arguments with the views of anti-Christian writers like Joseph McCabe, James Frazier, and the folklorists of the 18th and early 20th century.
In the next article we will look at the specific claims against the Christian Liturgical Festival of the Nativity of St. John and evaluate the actual evidence from the ancient world. Was the summer solstice, or Midsummer actually a mainstay of most of pagan Europe?