The feast of the nativity of St John the Baptist, which falls on 24 June, coincides, in the northern hemisphere, with the summer solstice, and combines, like its chronological antithesis 25 December, Christian and pre-Christian imagery and activity in its celebration.
The further north you go, the more significant the longest day of the year becomes. In Estonia, St John’s Eve (Jaaniõhtu,) and St John’s Day (Jaanipäev) are still marked by bonfires marking the days in which the sun barely sets, and (as you would expect), lots of singing and dancing. A medieval Christian writer complained that the semi-pagan natives gathered around the church but didn’t actually go inside, drinking and generally revelling in their semi-pagan ways. (Is it safe to assume that, as so often, the church was built on an earlier sacred site?)
In the twentieth century, added importance accrued to the festival, as 23 June 1919 marks the decisive victory in the battle for independence: we tend to think of the First World War ending on 11 November 1918, but for several more months the Baltic states were struggling for independence against both Germany and the newly emerging Soviet Union, Unsurprisingly, in the ‘Soviet times’, Estonian ‘Victory Day’ (Võidupüha) was not celebrated, but the tradition is now restored of the President of the Republic lighting a bonfire from which torches are kindled to carry to other bonfires all over the country.
Incidentally, Lennart Meri, the second president (whose life was a paradigm of what happened to the Baltic states under Soviet rule) suggested in his book Hõbevalge (Silverwhite) that the celebrations contain the folk memory of the day when the sun fell out of the sky – the impact of the meteor which struck the island of Saaremaa in the Bronze Age and created the Kaali lake. (Some British St John’s day legends involve fiery dragons in the sky, but I suppose this would be far too tenuous a link…)
One of the Estonian traditions is that fern flowers bloom only on St John’s eve: and this belief is also found in Britain, according to the estimable John Brand. ‘Fern-seed is looked on as having great magical powers, and must be gathered on Midsummer Eve. A person who went to gather it reported that the Spirits whisked by his ears, and sometimes struck his hat and other parts of his body, and, at length, when he thought he had got a good quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a box, when he came home, he found both empty.’ (Fern-seed, of course, if you can get hold if it, is very useful as it makes you invisible.)
Divination of both love and death is another common feature of St John’s eve, as it is of Hallowe’en. According to Brand, the plant orpine (stonecrop), Sedum telephium (the same yellow colour as the mineral pigment orpiment) was vital, either stuck in the rafters of your bedroom, or baked in a cake which you placed under your pillow – either way you would dream of a future husband. Sowing hempseed might also work: ‘Hempseed I sow, Hemp-seed I hoe, and be he that is my true-love come after me and mow.’
Watching in the church porch on Midsummer Eve, you would see all the people in the parish who would die in the following twelve months: ‘my sister Hetty … stood in the church porch last Midsummer Eve, … and she saw her own apparition’. Hetty died at Christmas. In another case, a watcher fell into a sleep from which he could not be roused: ‘Whilst in this state, his ghost, or spirit, was seem by the rest of his companions knocking at the church door.’
Getting back to the saint, he has two feast days in the Catholic church (nativity on 24 June and beheading on 29 August), and no less than six in the eastern Orthodox tradition: conception (23 September), synaxis (liturgical feast, 7 January), first and second finding of his head (24 February), third finding of his head (25 May), nativity (24 June), and beheading (29 August). The various findings presumably relate to the many different claims to ownership of his skull; his right hand exists in at least two places as well.
The iconography has him shaggy, clad in sheepskin and often carrying a cross and accompanied by a lamb (this is the case for images of him as a child companion of his cousin Jesus). The archetype is the magnificent mosaic in Hagia Sofia, Istanbul (perhaps under less threat of being whitewashed over since the recent Turkish elections). The Neonian and Arian baptisteries in Ravenna have stunning (though doctrinally differing) ceiling mosaics of the baptism of Christ.
Possibly the most spectacular English parish church dedicated to St John the Baptist is that at Cirencester, though the tiny church of Inglesham in Wiltshire deserves a mention, as having been preserved by William Morris (it is not far from Kelmscott) and the SPAB from ‘restoration’ in the 1880s. St John’s College, Oxford, is dedicated to the Baptist (though St John’s College, Cambridge, honours the Evangelist).
Finally, a mention of the archetypal midsummer flower, St John’s wort (Hypericum), which has long been known as a medicinal plant (it was an ingredient in the famous Venetian theriaca), and is used against depression and as an anti-inflammatory (though it is poisonous in large quantities). According to the doctrine of signatures, ‘The little holes where of the leaves of Saint Johns wort are full, doe resemble all the pores of the skin and therefore it is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto.’ It is certainly the case that even in the dull, cloudy, cold midsummer that we are enduring at the moment, the flowers don’t fail to lift the spirits.