The Vigil of St. John: bonfires and witch burnings, solstices and snails

It is nice to have as your Patron the great Baptist, for I get two feasts a year, his Nativity and his Beheading.

For the Vigil of St. John (today, as I write) in the old Roman Ritual the priest would once bless bonfires!

And in Bavaria, witches are burned!  A priest friend who shares my feast sent me a spiffing photo (below – a little hard to see at this size, but I assure you, there is a witch in there):


If you have any unwanted witches, send them to Bavaria next year for a nice vacation.

In other places, cast-off or unneeded things are burned… in a way parallel, I suppose, to throwing things away at the other end of the year after the Winter Solstice.

This is custom calls to mind that many places celebrated the feasts of saints with great festivity.

In any event, have a nice bonfire!  The evening is about as long as the year can offer, so a great party could be had well into the night with much cooking in the open and revelry.

The blessing for the bonfire is beautiful.  After the usual introduction, the priest would bless the fire saying:

Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify + this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.

At this point the fire is sprinkled with holy water and everyone sings the hymn Ut quaent laxis which is also the Vespers hymn.

It is almost as if the fire, and our celebration, is baptized.

The reference to light and darkness surely harks to the fact of the Solstice, which was just observed. At this point the days get shorter in the Northern Hemisphere.  I looked at that HERE and HERE.

For the feast of St. John in June for centuries the Church has sung at Vespers the hymn beginning Ut queant laxis. 

If you want to hear Ut queant laxis sung “in the wild”, as it were, check out the Benedictines at Norcia, a fine group of men, really living the Benedictine life in the place where Benedict is said to have been born.  HERE.

Those of you who are lovers of the movie The Sound of Music will instantly recognize this hymn as the source of the syllables used in solfège or solmization (the use of syllables instead of letters to denote the degrees of a musical scale). Both the ancient Chinese and Greeks had such a system.

The Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-1050) introduced the now familiar syllables ut re mi fa sol la for the tones of the hexachord c to a… or, more modally, the tonic, supertonic, mediant, etc. of a major scale. The Guidonian syllables derive from the hymn for the feast of St. John the Baptist:

UT queant laxis
REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum
FAmuli tuorum,
SOLve polluti
LAbii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes (SI).

After the medieval period (when music became less modal and more tonal) to complete the octave of the scale the other syllable was introduced (si – taken from S-ancte I-oannes, becomes “ti”) and the awkward ut was replaced sometime in the mid 17th c. with do (or also doh – not to be confused in any way with the Homeric Simpsonic epithet so adored by today’s youth, derived as it is from the 21st century’s new liturgical focal point – TV) and do came to be more or less fixed with C though in some cases do remains movable.

So, now you know where Doh, Re, Mi comes from!  Check out this oldie PODCAzT from 2007:

It is also good to gather St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) on the feast.  ”Wort” is from Old English wyrt (German Würze), which means “plant”, but is used mostly in compounds.  Since ancient times “singent’s wort” was known to relieve melancholy or depression, as does borage… which every garden should have.  It would be hung above doors, windows and sacred images (hence the hyper-icum ”above image”) to keep witches and evil spirit away.  Burning those witches might have something to do with its effectiveness as well, now that I think about it.

Build a fire tonight, even if you can’t burn a witch, and sing something in honor of St. John!  I will enjoy cigars, I think, and maybe burn some old personal records I no longer need … and think about witches.

Oh! And eat some snails.

It is a Roman custom to eat snails on the Feast of John the Baptist.

And, just in case it has been a while…

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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21 Responses to The Vigil of St. John: bonfires and witch burnings, solstices and snails

  1. pinoytraddie says:

    Father,Is St. John the Baptist YOUR Patron Saint? Why?

    [Gosh, I wonder!]

  2. AnnAsher says:

    I think we will build a fire! Fascinating post. Did the witch burning begin with ahem real live witches?

  3. Sandy says:

    St. John is not only the patron saint of our oldest son, but he was born on the feast day! I always marvel at God’s timing. One daughter was born on the Assumption and of course we had already picked out her middle name – Marie! Happy feast day, Father!

  4. Kerry says:

    “And what do we doooo…with witches?”
    “Burn them!!”
    “Yes, but what else do we burn?”
    “More witches!!”
    “What do we do with unwanted Pelosi’s…”
    [Vote them out!]

  5. jeffreyquick says:

    The Bavarians burn witches. And the Georgians burn crosses. As a former Wiccan, I’m not thrilled by the reminder of, uh, “Not the Church’s finest hour.” On the other hand, I wouldn’t want the Bavarians to become politically correct. Oh well, any excuse for a bonfire is a good one.

  6. Imrahil says:

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want the Bavarians to become politically correct.

    Using accurate scholasticism, you can rest assured they, as such, won’t. They would by the very fact cease to be Bavarian; indeed empirically giving themselves evidence to that, as they in all cases known to me they no longer speak in Bavarian dialect, or even any harder note of accent.

  7. Bea says:


    May St. John not let it rain on your parade today or tomorrow.

    It’s tradition in Mexico that if it rains before The Feast of St. John, we will have a dry summer.
    It rained today. Since today is the Vigil of St. John , I hope it doesn’t count as “before”
    We really, really need that rain.

  8. The Cobbler says:

    I was under the impression that when the Lutherans and Calvinists were burning witches (Salem wasn’t a Catholic colony, y’know), we were burning Lutherans and Calvinists.

  9. Joe in Canada says:

    this just in! LCWR considers Bavaria for next year’s conference!
    (joke, sisters. There’s a Bavaria in Kansas)

  10. Father P says:

    The custom of the bonfire is still encouraged by the Church according to the Directory of Popular Piety. We lighted and blessed a fire on the church steps tonight prior to the Vigil Mass in Ordinary Form (using the prayer of blessing from the EF Roman Ritual) then the Entrance Hymn (The Great Forerunner of the Morn) followed by the Introductory Rites of the Mass.

  11. New Sister says:

    Happy Feast Day, Fr. Z!
    Paris, France has a super fireworks display on the feast of St John the Baptist. (not sure where; last time I attended was in the Seine, environs the 10th/11th arrondisment; best vantage is from a bridge)

  12. Pingback: Feast of St. John the Baptist Gregory Burke Vatican Director of Communications | Big Pulpit

  13. pinoytraddie says:

    As a Convert Priest,Who do you Adopt as your Patron Saint,Father?

    [I am rather partial to St. Augustine for obvious reasons and to St. Philip Neri (co-patron of Rome with St. Peter) on whose feast I was ordained.]

  14. Mariana says:

    Always huge bonfires (of old wooden rowing boats for best effect) everywhere here in Scandinavia on St. John’s Eve. Happy saint’s day, Father!

  15. Victor says:

    Many years ago, when I was 16 I spent four weeks with relatives in Canada. My cousin and me were watching an episode of the Simpsons show, where the family car hits a statue of a doe. The following dialogue ensued:
    Homer “D’oh!”
    Marge: “A dear!”
    Lisa: “A female dear!”
    My cousin started to laugh hysterically, while I was wondering what was SO funny about it. This is when it was decided I had to watch The Sound of Music…

  16. liebemama says:

    Alles Gute zum Namenstag, Father!
    We are celebrating here today with my father in law, Johannes.

  17. mike cliffson says:

    Cool post!
    Happy patron Saint’s day father!
    Much celebrated with fireworks and bonfires ,with effigies, here on the med last night.
    BTW the only thing I know of that you can do with borage is drink it with ice, pym’s nº 1 , and gin.

  18. Also happy co-patron of St. John Lateran Cathedral in Rome!

  19. Kathleen10 says:

    Darn it, we just burned all our witches, wished I knew! Well, I’m about to go back to work, I’m certain a few will crop up soon. They always do.
    What does one say to someone celebrating their Feast Day of their patron saint? Whatever it is, I wish it for you, Fr. Z! Happy Feast Day! St. John was so cool. I love thinking about him saying “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”…I think that is what he said. You just know he said that with force and vigor!

  20. AnAmericanMother says:

    This seems like as good a place as any to post this absolutely gorgeous setting of the words of St. John by Orlando Gibbons:
    This is the record of John
    One of the very best of the verse anthems.