St. John the Baptist, Bonfires, and “Summer Christmas”
Today is the solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. How will you celebrate this great saint’s birthday?
St. John the Baptist was a prophet filled with a fiery zeal for declaring Christ’s coming and the need for repentance. We know that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1, 15). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he leapt with joy in his mother’s womb when he met Jesus for the first time, proclaiming the Gospel message in utero. When he was thirty, he preached on the banks of the River Jordan against sin and urged men to repent and be baptized “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” He attracted large crowds (“people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem”) and led them to conversion. Like a lantern, he lit the way for many who were lost in the darkness. He led them to the Light (Christ) and out of the darkness of sin. We also know that the birth of St. John the Baptist occurs close to the summer solstice, and is known as the “summer Christmas.” Thus, it is fitting that the day of his birth be celebrated by the lighting of fires.
On this solemnity, people light small fires, gather around them, jump through the flames, and sing traditional songs in praise of St. John the Baptist. This custom is based on the pre-Christian belief that people needed fires to clean purify, cure, and protect them from plagues, curses, and other dangers. In Spain, smaller fires are ignited in the streets of cities, with everyone donating an old piece of furniture or wood, while children jump over the flames. The Spanish people also light bonfires and set off fireworks. In Brest, France, the people throw lighted torches in the air. In other areas of France, they cover wagon wheels with straw, then set them on fire with a blessed candle and roll them down the hill slopes.
While all these traditions sound like fun, I think that I will forgo the fire festivities and settle on consuming some spicy Mexican food to celebrate this solemnity.