Redeeming Christian Holy Days from Pagan Lies: Nativity of St. John (Part 1)

This is the first part of three on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist/Midsummer Day

Nativity of St John the Baptist IconJune 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?

About Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson serves Faith Ev. Lutheran Church, Clara City, Minnesota (E.L.S.). He and his wife, Mary, have 10 children. Pastor Abrahamson is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies. He has served on the Faculty/Staff at Bethany Lutheran College teaching Religion, Linguistics, Archaeology, and Self-Defense; and was on Staff at the University of Wisconsin as an Information Processing Consultant (Computer Geek) while doing graduate work in Semitics. Pastor Abrahamson served Clearwater Lutheran Parish (ELS) from 2001 to April 2015.


Redeeming Christian Holy Days from Pagan Lies: Nativity of St. John (Part 1) — 3 Comments

  1. You are certainly correct that the date of Christmas has nothing to do with pagan holidays. I often hear that the Christians were just trying to take over Saturnalia with their Christmas, but even the most lax emperors did not allow Saturnalia to go all the way until December 25. It was over by at least December 23–and usually much earlier. If Christians were trying to blend in by doing their celebrating at the same time as their pagan neighbors, then they failed miserably. It would be like an American in Canada setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July…and hoping that everybody would assume that he was still celebrating Canada Day (July 1).

    A slight correction: The second anchor point of the month was called the “Nones” (Latin Nonae), not “Nons.” The English way of expressing “Idus” is “the Ides.”

    An additional note: When Julius Caesar revised the calendar, the four pivotal times of the year (equinoxes and solstices) were all “ante diem octavum Kalendas ___” (the eighth day [counting inclusively] before the Kalends of January/April/July/October), in other words, Dec. 25, Mar. 25, Jun. 24, and Sep. 24, respectively. Thus, Augustine assumes that Caesar’s astronomers knew what they were doing and had fixed the calendar once and for all. By his reckoning, then, the solstice occurred on Christmas and the Nativity of St. John, for that is what all the astronomers were teaching in his day.

    However, by the time of the First Council of Nicaea, there had already been three too many leap years, thus making the calendar three days slower than it should have been. But when Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar, he reset it to the time of the Nicene Council rather than to the time of Christ’s birth since Nicaea had dealt with the question of Easter (inter alia) and he wanted to set Easter in the sixteenth (and subsequent centuries) to be held at the same time as the folks in Nicaea would have done back then. That is why these two holidays do not occur on the solstices in our calendar.

  2. @James Kellerman #1
    Thank you, I corrected the spellings to the current usage as you suggested. I had been using Bickerman’s.

    With regard to Augustine, he lived after the First Council of Nicaea which (as you implied) had fixed the vernal equinox on March 21, thus setting the calendar date of the solstice to June 21/22.

    I would assume Augustine was aware of this particular detail, because he was familiar with that Council as well as having a great familiarity with all kinds of pagan practices, astrology in particular being one of his main focuses.

    Rather than assuming he was ignorant of this particular point I assumed he was content to keep the Julian calendar dates for the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and of John the Baptist as they were established, since those dates were in practice throughout the Church in his time. The precise astronomical dating of the solstice not being the issue for him, rather the theological reason for the dates as laid down in Clement and Hippolytus received Augustine’s emphasis in his sermons.

    Perhaps I err in making this set of assumptions, but I don’t think it affects the historical substance of the article.

    Thank you very much for you comments.

  3. You may be right about Augustine knowing exactly when the solstices occurred. I had assumed that most people in his day hadn’t given it much thought, especially since his sermon assumes that Dec. 25 and June 24 are the solstices (“dies crescunt” and “minuuntur”). But perhaps he was speaking to an audience that knew that the solstices occurred roughly at that time and gave it no further thought, just as most people today can’t express accurately the century leap year rule of the Gregorian calendar. Since the Julian calendar was so accurate (especially compared to its antecedents), most people may not have worried about it being off by a couple of days. To be off by about a week per millennium isn’t bad.

    Again, I appreciate what you are trying to do to show that Christianity is not simple the old paganism warmed over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.