St. John's Eve

Across the globe, there is a wide variety of celebrations around the solstice. The longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which corresponds to the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, is the result of the tilt in the axis of the earth, bringing the northern half of the globe closest to the sun on June 21 and the southern half of the globe closest to the sun on December 21. There have been festivals and activities celebrating the phenomenon throughout all of human history. In some places, such as Stonehenge in England, there is evidence that ancient people were very accurate in the measurement and designation of the exact time when the sun reached the highest point in the sky as observed from the earth. There are other places, however, when the longest (or shortest) day of the year is observed in a general season. Celebrations of the solstice range from June 21 through June 24, which is designated as St. John’s Day in many places.

In Canada, especially in Quebec, French Canadians celebration June 24 as St. John’s Day with a holiday. The day is also known as Midsummer day in some places. Celebrations include bonfires, picnics, special alcoholic drinks and general revelry.

The Christian feast day of St. John has a fairly confusing history. It is likely that the Christian celebration of St. John’s Day has some origins in the practice of the early church of locating festivals and feasts at times when pre-Christian celebrations were already occurring. Thus Christmas is celebrated near the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and St. John’s Day lands near the summer solstice. The variation in dates from the actual solstice days can be explained in part in the switching of official calendars of the church from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. For many years now, tradition has celebrated the birth day of St. John the Baptist on June 24.

It gets fairly confusing, however. The tradition of roughly six months difference in the age of John the Baptist and Jesus is based in part on the story reported in the Gospel of Luke of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth after discovering that she would be the mother of Jesus while Elizabeth was pregnant with John. The early pregnancy of one woman corresponded with the later pregnancy of the other. Part of the confusion around St. John’s Day is that there is more than one St. John in Christian tradition. The feast day of St. John the Evangelist, not to be confused with St. John the Baptist, is observed on December 27. The confusion is also due to the fact that for most saints, the day observed as their fest is the date of their death, not the date of their birth. Tradition names August 29 as the date of the death of St. John the baptist by beheading. I do not know how that date was set, but it is observed as a regular feast in the Eastern Orthodox church. John the Baptist, however, gets other holidays in addition to the feasts for the beginning and the ending of his life. Both Eastern and Western Christianity observe September 23 as the date of the conception of St. John the Baptist.

We don’t have absolute records of the exact dates of any of the events in John the Baptist’s life. The official recognition and celebration of those events has been assigned by tradition more than by historical accuracy.

The effect of the fluidity of dates has been that there are a variety of celebrations surrounding the winter and summer solstices and those celebrations are spread out across several days at both times. This year the simple fact that the solstice occurred on a Tuesday and St. John’s Day occurs on a Friday will have an effect on the celebrations across the northern hemisphere.

Solstice celebrations seem to become more emphasized the farther one gets away from the equator. The variation in the length of days between the two solstices is greatest closer to the poles of the planet than at its equator. If I remember accurately, there is a mere 7 minutes of variation in the length of the day in San Jose, Costa Rica, while the difference in the length of the day in Fairbanks, Alaska is 19 hours with dawn and dusk making nearly 24 hours of sunlight at the summer solstice and nearly 24 hours of darkness at the winter solstice. If you live farther north, you are likely to be more aware in the change in the length of days as you go through the year.

Our move to Northwestern Washington a couple of years ago took us far enough north that we notice the difference in the swings of daylight from our old home in South Dakota. Up her in the corner of the lower 48 states, the days are particularly long here. I find that I am rising earlier in the mornings and staying up later at night simply because of how light it is. The Sun is rising around 5 am and setting around 9:30 pm. That means that there is discernible light in the sky at 4:30 am and it remains light until after 10 pm. That is a big contrast with the winter solstice, when the sun rose after 8 am and set around 4:15 pm. Around here we drive in the dark a lot in the winter, but only rarely drive in the dark in the summer.

Our house is aligned very closely to the compass, with our front porch facing south and our back deck facing north. This means that we have excellent outdoor spaces to sit in both the morning and evening sun. We’ve had the additional blessing of sunny days this week which have drawn us out doors as much as possible. It is a wonderful time for picnics, barbecues, and other outdoor activities. We can remember, however, the short days of winter which lie one the opposite side of the calendar.

So happy St. John’s Eve. Even if your traditions don’t include a formal celebration, it is a good time to note the sunrise and sunset and enjoy the length of the day up north and observe its shortness if you live in the southern hemisphere.

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