by D.J. Wilson
My elementary school days seem a long way away, but some teachings remain embedded forever. I remember my teacher standing before the classroom, holding a piece of chalk in her hand, as we anticipated “today’s lesson”. We focused on the letters she neatly wrote in cursive on the blackboard, our young minds eager to learn. The words read “Science: Why seasons occur.” We opened our black and white composition notebooks and began to take notes in ink on the Earth’s axis of rotation not being perpendicular to its orbital plane. We learned about the solstice, an astronomical event that happens twice a year when the sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North or South Pole. The solstices and the equinoxes are connected with the seasons. Much later in life I discovered how the world is influenced by traditions linked to the observance of the summer and winter solstice and the Christian significance of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.
The ancient Greeks were the first to study concepts of solstices based on celestial navigation. The word solstice is derived from the Latin language and translates literally into “sun standing”. Today, folks use the word solstice to mean the “longest day of the year” in summer or “shortest” in winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, 2012 summer solstice occurred on June 20th and signified the longest day of the year. It is celebrated differently all around the world. Ancient Romans called it Litha or Vestalia. In Wales, it is called Gathering Day. The Scottish culture celebrates Feill-Sheathain, and the Greeks celebrate All Couple’s Day. Even New York City celebrates Swedish Midsummer, attracting people of Swedish and Scandinavian heritage and others. Significant feasts also take place in Bolivia where the day is declared a national public holiday. Widespread celebrations occur all throughout the world, where homeland cultures and traditions render each nation’s festivities unique. Though impure people may attempt to associate pagan beliefs with the solstices, good Christians reject negative beliefs and maintain focus on the biblical significance of the birth of St. John the Baptist.
Christians recently celebrated the nativity of St. John the Baptist, observed annually on the 24th of June. Established in the year 506, the Council of Agde declared the Nativity of Saint John a high feast and required the faithful to attend three masses and to decline from working. The evening of June 23rd is considered the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke states that John was born about six months before the birth of Jesus, which is six months before Christmas. This feast day celebrates the birth of the saint and coincides with the June solstice. Generally, the day of a Saint’s death is usually celebrated as his or her feast day, but Saint John the Baptist is an exception to this rule. Other exceptions are Jesus and the Virgin Mary. This is because St. John was purified from original sin before his birth according to Catholic doctrine. He was a prophet who foretold of the coming of Jesus and he also baptized Jesus. The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church. Though not a widespread public holiday in the United States, it is considered a high-ranking liturgical feast in the Christian faith and is celebrated with joy in European countries in the form of festivals.
In many places in Europe, celebrating Saint John’s Day involves the traditional practice of lighting of fire as ancient symbols of warmth and light of the sun to greet the summer. In France, many folks partake in the “Fête de la Saint Jean” celebration. In the Southern town of Aubagne, a traditional festival takes place with a bonfire on the main square of this 11th century old village and includes local folk dancing and merriment. The scenic town sits amidst an agricultural region centered on fruit and vegetable production and is located 11 miles east of Marseille in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of Southern France. It is also home of the French Foreign Legion. Like Aubagne, many other European towns hold celebrations featuring dancing, games, and the sharing of food. It is a time in which Christians come together in faith, often gathering around the fire. Often dressed in traditional clothes or costumes, it is a time to pray together to Saint John for his intercession and celebrate with music and dance. In Italy, the feast of Saint John the Baptist has been an important part of Florence’s history since medieval times, with festival lasting three days long. The town Cesena has a special street market celebration and in Turin folks gather for a fireworks display and celebration on the river. Travelers to the region often enjoy experiencing the merry ambiance and are welcome to partake in the festivities.
In school, we learned a great deal about facts related to the seasons. As we travel and experience life, we observe a correlation between these facts and culture as it relates to people, beliefs and traditions. Festivals are a great way to experience other cultures and offer a fun and unique adventure. The solstice is a lovely occasion to reflect upon the beauty and splendor of the seasons, and provides the opportunity for people to joyfully greet the new time of year. Above all, it marks a time for Christians to renew faith through celebration. Perhaps one day you’ll have the pleasure of participating in the Feast of Saint John the Baptist in Europe in a charming town such as Aubagne. It is bound to be a memorable experience.