This is the third article on the Nativity of St. John. This article will deal with the Neo-Pagan practice of claiming Celtic origins, “Blame it on the Celts,” or “Claim it’s from the Celts.” We’ll also look at documented German and wider European practices.
Keep this question in mind as we conclude this series:
Is it realistic to think that the Church Fathers of the 1st and 2nd centuries went to the extreme of sending out scouts to the British Isles, to western and northern Europe in order to find out when ancients pagans held their festivals so that the Church Fathers could schedule the liturgical year accordingly?
What We Have Covered
To bring readers up to speed, we have been evaluating the claims that this Christian holy day was instituted as a way to displace, absorb, or suppress an ancient pagan holiday.
Some of the assertions behind these claims are:
- The assertion that Paganism is older than Christianity. This is a rejection of the Bible. Particularly the nature of God, His six day creation, the fall into sin by our first parents, and the promise of the Messiah in the curse on Satan (Genesis 3:15). Christianity is older than all the paganisms known today and through history.
- The assertion that Christianity is unoriginal and needs to steal, suppress, displace, or act in other illegitimate ways to establish itself as a religion. While these wrongs are implied by the claims against Christianity, the irony is that pagan religions have never had a problem doing exactly these things. For the most part, pagan religions never met a different faith that they haven’t tried to claim as originally their own. This can be seen even in the pagan reactions to the early Christian Apologists.
- The assertion that most community rituals seen in modern times must have had their origin in Paganism. According to the assertion that Paganism is Older, anything that could be viewed as a relic of pagan ritual demonstrates the fact that Christianity is the new kid on the block and hasn’t been as successful in its repression of paganism as it had hoped.
So far we have looked at ancient texts relating specifically to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the summer solstice/Midsummer which demonstrate that:
- The celebration of Christmas was established December 25 by the late 2nd century or early 3rd century A.D. in northern Africa from Algeria to Egypt, as far north as the shore of the Black Sea, from Israel in the east, and over to Rome in the west. According to the Church Fathers of that era the date was chosen based on what they believed about the significance of the date of the Passover in Exodus.
- St. John’s Nativity coordinated with Christmas based on Luke 1.
- Widespread celebrations of St. John’s Nativity by the mid-4th century.
With regard to the assertions that summer solstice celebrations are very ancient, common, widespread, and pagan we looked at the records from Mesopotamian cultures, ancient Greece, and ancient Rome.
- There are no ancient Near Eastern records from the 3rd millenium B.C. down to the fall of Babylon of any widespread ritual tied directly to the summer solstice. One ritual in the late Babylonian period, the transposing of priestesses from Esagil to Ezida and vice versa shortly after the summer solstice and after the winter solstice, is all we have.
- While ancient Greek sources refer often to the summer solstice, these references do not show any evidence of a ritual associated with solar worship or any widespread ritual relating to the summer solstice.
- The ancient Roman sources show that there were solar cults and temples through Rome’s history, but there are no records that indicate any widespread solar ritual on the event of the summer solstice. Aurelian’s attempt at establishing the worship of Sol Invictus is not related to either the winter or the summer solstice. Besides this, his attempt took place after Christians had settled on December 25th as the liturgical date for Christ’s birth.
The First Problem With Asserting Celtic Origins
The liturgical days for Christmas and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist didn’t originate in Celtic lands. The festivals originated before the Church had widespread contact with peoples who became popularly refered to as Celtic. While some modern St. John’s traditions might come from European practices or rituals in the early parts of the first millennium A.D. evidence from actual documentation to demostrate that the practices were particularly Celtic or even pagan is thin. In fact, many of the modern traditions have already been shown to be derived from or been drastically modified during the period of the radical Reformation—particularly the English Reformation. (Ronald Hutton The Stations of the Sun 1991)
Second Problem: Ancient Celtic Monuments—which are not really “Celtic”
In the popular understanding today it seems quite apparent from tombs, henge monuments, the cursus monuments and other archaeological finds that ancient Celts were capable of calculating the actual Summer and Winter solstices without reference to what ever political calendars were in use.
There is a prehistoric tomb in County Meath, Ireland, called Newgrange [Irish: Sí an Bhrú]. The only sunlight to enter the tomb comes on the morning of the Winter solstice.
Much more famous is the Midsummer sunrise celebrated at Stonehenge. The “precision” of the alignment between the Heel Stone and the center trilithon of the central ring to mark the solstice is still hotly contested by astronomers. But today Neopagans assert that this is proof of the advanced understanding that ancient Celtic pagans possessed in predicting the solstices.
If ancient pagans from a thousand years B.C. up through 1500 A.D. were so good at knowing when the solstices would take place regardless of which political calendar was in use, why would today’s Neo-Pagans and Wiccans feel they have to assert that June 24th had to be the Summer solstice?
By 200 AD the Julian Calendar was off so that June 22 was the solstice., in the mid-300s it was the 21st, by 1580 it was June 11th or 12th. The Gregorian Calendar reforms of 1582 didn’t set the solstice back to the 24th as in Julius Caesar’s time. Instead the summer solstice was synchronized with June 21/22. In 1752, the year England finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the summer solstice in England took place on June 10th. (https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/seasons.html?year=1750&n=136)
Actually, those ancients may or may not have been very good at calculating the solstice. But the solstice might not have mattered as much to them as the moderns wish. Ronald Hutton raises an important consideration with regard to using this kind of archaeological evidence. After listing Newgrange, Knowth, Loughcrew and Maes Howe, and some of the ‘cursus’ monuments of southern England as well as the ‘henge’ monuments, Hutton wrote:
All this is impressive, and must be significant, but needs to be put in a wider perspective. These are almost all unusually sophisticated and elaborate structures of their kind, and as such highly atypical. None of the other fifty-odd cursuses known in Britain has obvious solar alignments, nor do any of the other passage graves, which number over a hundred. … To sum up, it is clear that at particular times and places in British and Irish prehistory the cardinal points of the sun, and particularly the winter solstice, had considerable ritual importance. None the less, the vast majority of prehistoric monuments in these islands do not relate to any of them, so that no overall or enduring pattern of cult can be detected. Furthermore, a considerable gulf separates all these monuments from the pre-Roman British Iron Age, not one of the temples of which has yet been found to have possessed a significant solar alignment. (Stations of the Sun, p. 4-5)
Thus, these prehistoric “Celtic” sites do not demonstrate any consistent preoccupation with the solstices. Furthermore, these prehistoric monumental sites cannot be considered relics originally representative of Celtic religiosity. Modern people have projected a sense of Celticness on these monuments because they exist in what are considered Celtic lands. The problem is that these monumental structures predate any people group that could be called Celtic by at least 1,000 years.
So, when considered together as a body of evidence these “ancient Celtic monuments” demonstrate three things relevant to St. John’s Nativity and Midsummer.
- There is no overall consistency in design that would demonstrate that the summer or winter solstice was of special significance to the builders of these monuments, whatever culture(s) they might represent.
- There is no demonstrable direct heritage from these monumental structures to the people groups that became labeled by the term Celtic in the 1700s and later.
- And if the ancients were so good at predicting the solstice, why would those ancients want to claim that some proximate date on a comparatively much more inaccurate calendar from a very remote region like Rome must be the day of their solstice celebration? This is a basic presupposition of the claim, and it makes no sense.
Third Problem: Real Celts
Anything known about the Celts before the middle ages is reconstructed from archaeological finds and the few Greek and Roman authors that mention them. Despite so much being published about ancient Celts in novels, movies, and even popularizing educational documentaries (BBC’s “The Celts” from the late 1980s) there is very little that is actually known about their societal structures or their various religious views.
But there is a reason for all this mis-information. It comes not just from the popularizers, but even from the scholars themselves. Tristan Barako of Brown University explains:
There’s a running joke in archaeology that if you don’t know what the function of an artifact is, then it must be cultic (i.e., religious). It’s a big problem because artifacts are essentially mute — that is, they don’t tell you what they were used for. It’s up to the archaeologist to interpret them and give them meaning. Obviously this can be very subjective, which explains why there are always so many contrasting theories in archaeology — this is especially true when it comes to religious objects.
(Tristan Barako, interview https://www.providencepictures.com/news/2009/02/qa-with-dr-tristan-barako-for-cogitoorg.html )
The truth is that up to 500 BC there are no written accounts of a people called the Celts. References to Celts and Gauls can be found in the Classical sources from that time on (see list here https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/index_classical.html ) What can be seen from these early classical sources is that the use of the terms Celt or Gaul did not signify a specifically self-identified ethnic or religious group. An issue discussed at length by many archaeologists since the 1980s. The complexities in determining any origins or rituals of what has become called the Celtic peoples are still grossly simplified for the convenience of maintaining a modern Celtic identity. “Celtic” identity was actually the creation of the 18th century.
From the 18th century and later this Celtic identity was based on a variety of assumptions that formed the basis for reading texts from what became identified the 7th century AD and later: not the least of which was a notion that there were in much more ancient times a group that was a monolithic culture in Celtic language, Celtic ritual and religious ideas, Celtic political and economic outlook, and Celtic self-identification.
No such monolithic Celtic society ever existed. Several archaeologists, linguists, and historians have demonstrated the falseness of such notions. See, for example:
- Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins 1987.
- Simon James, The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?.1999.
- Ronald Hutton The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, 1991.
But a romantic version of the past glory and culture of the Celts remains in popular thought to this day. And with it, the fictional reconstructions of supposedly “Celtic” religious and ritual teachings. One example of the ironies is that can be shown in the way people romanticize Celtic identity is the contrast between doubt about the historical nature of King Arthur (supposedly 5th century AD) which comes to us from texts dating to the 12th century AD, and the certainty about Celtic identity and Celtic solar ritual ascribed to far more ancient times from far more vague references in manuscripts that come from the 9th century AD and later.
But we do have some texts given us by archaeology that describe, at least in part for some of those people who today we would term Celtic.
Ancient Celtic Calendars
It seems fair to ancient Celts to assume that they shared some cultural and ethnically unique features, such as a grouping of languages that share common features. Such linguistic commonality does not at all imply identity of ritual or calendar shared by all ancient Celts. The Greeks and the ancient Semitic peoples have already been given as examples that demonstrate the weakness of such assumptions.
When we look at ancient Celtic calendars what we find is a lack of calendars until the middle ages. But there is one calendar that we have found in good enough shape to attempt to decipher it. It dates probably to the 2nd century AD. This is the Colingy Calendar, written in Gallic and found in 1897 at Colingy, France. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coligny_calendar)
The problem with the calendar is that interpreting what might seem to be a simple thing is not. Scholars well acquainted with the language and the object cannot agree on when the first month took place with respect to our modern calendar. The names of the months are no guarantee. What they can say with reasonable confidence is that the calendar was basically a lunisolar calendar: that is, a calendar based on the moon which was adjusted to make up for the solar year. As such there is not consistent solar date that can be identified to settle the disagreements about which month was first. (https://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/calendar/coligni.html )
So, in the 2nd century AD in the province of Ain, France, the actual date which we could call Celtic does not indicate any universal or even widespread celebration of the summer solstice.
Midsummer Traditions That Might Be Pagan in Origin.
Those who claim widespread ancient pagan traditions are behind the date and rituals on St. John’s Nativity are left with a significant problem. The major ancient cultural influences on the region where they claim origins does not have any actual historical data to back up that claim. So, perhaps there was just a general use of pagan traditions or ritual that took place just generally at what was about Midsummer Day.
Two main categories of traditions can be seen in those listed by Guiley (The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft) and others: fire traditions, and non-fire rituals. We will look at the fire traditions first.
Burning Wheels and Bonfires:
The earliest references to burning wheels comes from the Acts of St. Vincent of Saragossa. The description is of pagans in Aquataine, France. But this reference does not mention a particular date or time of year. (Hutton, p. 311) St. Vincent was killed in 304 A.D. But his Acts were compiled from tradition and assembled in the 8th or 9th century. (Catholic Encyclopedia)
So while the reference to pagans using burning wheels dates for certainty as early as the 8th or 9th century A.D. the burning wheel might date back to late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. But this document does not tie this tradition to a day of the year.
A 13th-century monk from Winchcomb, Gloucestershire edited a collection of sermons. Regarding St. John’s eve’ he wrote that the pagans rolled a wheel. However, it is not noted whether the wheel was set ablaze.
Historically, the listing of actual Burning Wheels on Midsummer’s Eve’ or Day start with Thomas Naogeorgus (1508-1563) a Protestant of the radical reformation in Germany who wrote chiefly from 1538-1555. An English translation of his 1555 Regnum papisticum from 1880 of his account of St. John’s Eve’:
Then doth the ioyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
When bonfiers great with loftie flame, in euery towne doe burne:
And yong men round about with maides, doe daunce in euery streete,
With garlands wrought of Motherwort, or else with Veruain sweete,
And many other flowres faire, with Violets in their handes,
Whereas they all do fondly thinke, that whosoeuer standes,
And thorow the flowres beholds the flame, his eyes shall feele no paine.
When thus till night they daunced haue, they through the fire amaine
With striuing mindes doe runne, and all their hearbes they craft therein,
And then with wordes deuout and prayeres, they solemnely begin,
Desiring God that all their illes may there consumed bee,
Whereby they thinke through all that yeare, from Agues to be free.
Some others get a rotten wheele, all worne and rast aude,
Which coured round about with strawe, and tow, they closely hide:
And caryed to some mountaines top, being all with fire light,
They hurle it downe with violence, when darke appears the night:
Resembling much the Sunne, that from the heauens down should fal,
A straunge and monstrous sight it seemes, and fearful to them all:
But they suppose their mischiefes are all likewise throwne to hell,
And that from harmes and daungers now, in safetie here they dwell.
(Reprint of The popish kingdome, by T. Naogeorgus, Engl. by B. Googe, ed. by R.C. Hope, 1880, page 55)
Notice that Naogeorgus does not claim the people were pagan, nor does he claim that the people thought the Burning Wheel represented the sun. Rather he conjectures about the Burning Wheel as “resembling much the sun which should fall down from the heavens.”
So in the 1500s in Germany we have documentation that there were Christians burning fires on St. Johns, using burning wheels, dancing, making garlands, praying for safety and health in the coming year. Engaging in what could be called non-Christian ritual traditions and holding superstitious beliefs about those rituals.
Could these come from pagansim? Yes. But such superstitions need not be assumed to be of great antiquity. Nor can we assume that there was some huge monolithic pagan culture underlying all the different rituals.
In fact, the oldest records of bonfires or dances tied to Midsummer or to the Nativity of St. John start in 12th century France. Such traditions are not documented in England until the 13th century. The earliest in Ireland is 1305. (Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun, pp. 311-313, Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology II:601-630; IV:1461-1468)
Where the traditions can be documented throughout the British Isles, it is noteworthy that records in the typically “Celtic” areas give evidence that the traditions of Midsummer fires/St. John’s eve fires emerged more as a Roman Catholic defiance against the legal imposition of Protestantism and Protestant hostility toward all historically catholic practices. (Hutton, pp. 315-319)
In an ironic twist it seems that the radical Reformation’s anti-catholic hostility nurtured or created the ostensible pagan ritual forms it sought to stamp out by destroying ‘papistic’ practices.
As for dancing and making floral arrangements, these are documented not only of Midsummer from the 1200s on, but of every other holiday in England and Europe in general. There is more than ample evidence that the greenery chosen and the dance styles depended mostly on local availability and social fads set by royalty. Even with abundant evidence of the variety and changeable nature of these features of holidays many claims are projected back on the past that these things necessarily reflect a uniform monolithic pagan ritual presence that predates Christianity–usually claimed to be Celtic in origin.
Claims of Celtic origins are handy because the Celts left no written records to contradict the Neopagans and Wiccans.
The first document to note that the night is good for contacting fairies appears to be Lady Francesca Speranza (Jane) Wilde’s 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. p. 195f. Her research otherwise seems to be based on Hislop’s equating of pagan England with Ba’al worship of ancient Babylon.
At this point we need to consider St. Eligius (588-660) because he is often cited as proof of the antiquity of such rituals on St. John’s Eve’. The one sentence quotation is often cited without context from St. Ouen’s (609-86) biography of Eligius. The section says:
Before all else, I denounce and contest, that you shall observe no sacrilegious pagan customs. For no cause or infirmity should you consult magicians, diviners, sorcerers or incantators, or presume to question them because any man who commits such evil will immediately lose the sacrament of baptism. Do not observe auguries or violent sneezing or pay attention to any little birds singing along the road. If you are distracted on the road or at any other work, make the sign of the cross and say your Sunday prayers with faith and devotion and nothing inimical can hurt you. No Christian should be concerned about which day he leaves home or which day he returns because God has made all days. No influence attaches to the first work of the day or the [phase of the] moon; nothing is ominous or ridiculous about the Calends of January. [Do not] make [figures of?] vetulas, little deer or iotticos or set tables at night or exchange New Years’ gifts or supply superfluous drinks. No Christian believes impurity or sits in incantation, because the work is diabolic. No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. No Christian should presume to invoke the name of a demon, not Neptune or Orcus or Diana or Minerva or Geniscus or believe in these inept beings in any way. No one should observe Jove’s day in idleness without holy festivities not in May or any other time, not days of larvae or mice or any day but Sunday. [emphasis added]
(Saint Ouen of Rouen: The Life of Saint Eligius, Book 2, sec. 16)
The bolded sentence above is the one sentence that modern Pagans and others quote. Two things are important to note:
First, St. John’s day, while named, is placed among the rest of the saints’ days in the year in this reference.
The second is that the word “solestitia” is fairly unique. It could be a variant of “solstitia” which translates as “solstices” or even “summer” [compare Herman Hagen’s note on this term in a late manuscript of Vergil]. Or, since it is in context with dancing and leaping, it could mean “standing in isolation” derived from “sole” and “statio.”
However, many websites repeat the quotation isolated from context in these words:
No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.
[wikipedia, witchesofthecraft, pagan-place, timessquare, etc…]
Notice the interpretation of solestitia as “summer solstice rites”. This has become the fixed interpretation of the word only in modern times from Neopagan and Wiccan sources.
When read in context St. Eligius’s words show a wide breadth of concern in many different areas. Even the sentence in question is much broader than just St. John’s day.
While there were several areas documented throughout Europe that had fire burning on this night and games associated with this night, the evidence comes from long after the Christianization of these areas. Such evidence might indicate old pagan practices, or it just might represent common cross- cultural practices. Jacob Grimm (listed above) notes that fires were common on Shrove Tuesday, the first Sunday in Lent, Easter, May Eve and the days around and after May Eve, St. John’s Nativity, St. Peter and Paul’s, and on several other spring to late summer days as well as other church festivals, such as Christmas.
Certainly many of the rituals recorded were superstitions outside the Christian faith. But superstition does not necessarily come from long ancient uniform practice. But since all the testimony comes from the 11th century AD and later one cannot help but think that these claimed “ancient pagan” practices were not so ancient, and not so uniform and monolithic.
During the Reformation, especially in England many of fire traditions were either invented or re-invented for the purpose of making a ritual distinction between Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant. These rituals actually would come to be more intrinsically identified with the celebration of the historic liturgical festivals, like St. John’s Nativity than with any possible pagan roots.
This is not to say that some of these traditions today are not pagan. Many have been re-purposed for that very reason, to assert what is hoped to be an ancient pagan past that could give life meaning to the modern Pagan.
Just because the modern pagans claim something is theirs doesn’t mean it is.