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I am adapting the following from a column I published at real clear religion, back in 2013.
Many of the events in the Christian liturgical year coincide with older seasonal celebrations, which the church absorbed and consecrated. We think of Christmas (Midwinter), Easter (Spring) and All Saints/All Souls (the beginning of Winter). Generally, Western churches at least have forgotten what was once one of the greatest of these parallel commemorations, which almost amounted to a second Christmas. Somewhere along the line, we forgot St. John the Baptist.
Church - John - Baptist - Figure - Fact
For the early church, John the Baptist was clearly a critical figure. In fact, New Testament writers had to argue against those who saw him as at least comparable to Jesus. He was reputedly a blood relative of Christ himself. Not surprisingly, then, the later church made him a mighty hero of the faith, and built him into its emerging calendar. But when you did that, the Biblical evidence pointed to an interesting correlation with Christ’s own career. If John’s mother was in her sixth month when Mary conceived (Luke 1.36), then presumably John was born half a year later than his cousin. As the church increasingly associated Jesus’s own birth with Midwinter, then inevitably, John’s must have fallen at Midsummer. Hence his nativity became fixed at June 24.
As the church expanded into pagan Europe, that Midsummer connection added enormously to popular devotion to John. As the high point of the solar calendar, and the longest day, Midsummer was a widely beloved festival. It was associated with many popular customs and rituals, mainly marked by fire but also by ritual washing in rivers. Bonfires burned to ward off evil forces and defeat witches, while women collected medicinal plants and ferns. The fires became the focus of dancing and leaping, while wheels were rolled to symbolize...
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