Christmas comes early as we celebrate the birth of St John

A detail from The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

Were you out celebrating round a bonfire last night? Or at a vigil in your local church? Or at least with candles burning round your house, which was decorated with native greenery and flowers? Come to that, are you working just like usual today? Or are you going to Mass, prior to making whoopee with some kind of collective picnic with your friends and neighbours? If not, why not? Because this, as I need hardly remind Catholic Herald readers, is the feast of St John the Baptist, when it is practically obligatory for decent Christians to engage in an orgy of celebration.

There are only two earthly birthdays that were originally celebrated by the Church before the Virgin muscled in on the calendar in the Middle Ages (everyone else gets a feast on the day of their birth into heaven, otherwise known as their death), and they were those of Our Lord and his cousin, St John the Baptist. As you recall from the Gospel of Luke, when the angel Gabriel came to the Virgin, one thing he told her was that her cousin, Elizabeth, who was getting on in years, was already six months pregnant – which, given that people had written off her chances of childbearing, was a neat kind of parallel with the other extraordinary conception, that of Christ Himself. So, as Christians instantly worked out, this meant that John the Baptist was born six months before Christ. Therefore, when the date of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas, was fixed by the Church on December 25 in the fifth century, that meant that meant that the feast of John fell in June, June 24. And just as Christmas sanctified the winter solstice when the days were shortest, so the birthday of John became a summer Christmas.

And so all the customs that were celebrated in the pagan summer solstice were unhesitatingly co-opted by Christians for the Baptist. He was in scripture “a lantern and a light burning”; moreover, “many shall rejoice at his birth”. (The one bit of the gospel narrative that was universally ignored was Gabriel’s prophecy that “wine shall he not drink, nor strong drink (mead?)”. So Christians lit bonfires all over Europe for the vigil (last night) and prior to the Reformation, this festival of light turned into the marching watches, when guilds and militia and the entire population generally turned out for processions that round through cities like rivers of light. On the day itself not only did they go to Mass and decorate the houses with greenery, as for Christmas, but engaged in folk customs like rolling lighted cartwheels down hills, which is as obvious a representation of the sun as you can get.

You often get people saying triumphantly that Christian customs are merely pagan ones in disguise; well, prior to the Reformation this was universally understood and celebrated. So, go out and stick some birch branches in your houses, and have the neighbours round. This is the summer Christmas.