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!  

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{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, PODCAzT, Saints: Stories & Symbols and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Joe in Canada says:

    And the Byzantines have a third: his conception, Sept. 23.


  2. HyacinthClare says:

    And because your readers are such generous praying people, I ask your prayers of celebration for the 25th Anniversary tomorrow (June 24) of the ordination of Fr Joseph Terra, FSSP. Fr. Terra is recuperating in what the FSSP is saying is an “undisclosed location”, which is undoubtedly necessary to keep us all from driving him crazy and slowing his recovery. I doubt if it’s the Riviera, but I’d vote he got to go somewhere really lovely, if I got a vote. You read Fr. Z, Fr. Terra, I know you do… we love you and miss you and pray for you every day!

  3. APX says:

    This would be a great day for a heretical books burning.

  4. James Joseph says:

    Grilled pork ribs over wood for lunch with my godson who has joined the infantry.

    Traditional Catholics grill ribs because Islam took Constantinople.

  5. scholastica says:

    This is the first year that I can remember since becoming Catholic 19 years ago that we haven’t had a bonfire for the Vigil of John the Baptist and I finally find a kindred spirit. I even used to grow St. John’s wort just for this purpose! As for burning castoffs, the kids liked to burn their unneeded homeschool books and papers. I didn’t have a priest to bless it, but we would pray parts of vespers as in the Magnificat. No snails or locusts for us, I but a special chicken salad with pecans and honey-great summer meal sans cooking. This year we instead had a Pentecost Vigil bonfire as it’s a bit easier to gather friends on a Saturday night than Monday night. Too bad, because it’s a beautiful evening here in VA whereas last year we were under tarps and umbrellas due to a light rain-wet, but memorable.
    Thanks for the exhortation and hopefully we’ll be back on track next year:)

  6. scholastica says:

    My nearly 16 yo son was sitting next to me as I wrote the above using his computer and he said, “I want to be a priest, write a blog, and ask people to donate for my ammo fund.”
    Happy Feast Day Fr. Z!

  7. off2 says:

    Happy Name Day! Joy of the Feast, Fr Z!

    On May 25th, we (EOs) observed the Third Finding of His Head.

  8. Southern Baron says:

    I did an independent study grad class on the prosecution of witches in Early Modern Europe (we ultimately agreed they were not really persecuted, nor were they killed for being women). I did stun my prof, who really is good, when I said “so witch burning could be an act of love,” but I can’t say I went so far as to call it “spiffing”!

    Very interesting traditions though. I will have to look for references in my old books.

  9. jflare says:

    What’s up with the obsession with burning witches?
    They do remain human, even if dangerously misdirected.

    [Do you see a lot of witches being burned these days in your parts? You must live in a strange place.]

  10. ReginaMarie says:

    Joe in Canada: Actually, we Byzantines have 6, as there is also the First, Second & Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner & Baptist. Next to the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist is considered the most important saint in the Eastern Catholic Churches. This is seen especially in the iconography of the Church as he is depicted standing across from the Mother of God & next to Jesus in the Deisis icon above the iconostasis.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Dear Joe in Canada,

    that seems at odds, though, with the fine idea (mentioned by St. Thomas somewhere) that “the Church only celebrates that which is holy” (and hence, the fact that there is a feast of the conception is proof that the conception is immaculate).

    I guess we can safely assume that St. John, other than the Blessed Virgin, was not immaculately conceived. He did, though, receive santification in the womb some time after his conception (and, we might think, jumped in jubilation), which is why his birth is celebrated.

  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    jflare –

    . . . surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did — if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather — surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simple about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believes there were no mice in the house.

    C.S. Lewis (again. that man gets around.)

  13. jameeka says:

    What a great sermon! Thank you.

  14. ReginaMarie says:

    Imrahil: In commemorating the conception of the honorable, glorious Prophet, Forerunner & Baptist John, we celebrate the mercy, miracles & wisdom of God: His mercy toward the devout & righteous parents of St. John, the aged Zacharias & Elizabeth, who all their lives had wished for & begged a child from God; His miracle, that of John’s conception in the aged womb of Elizabeth; & His wisdom, in the dispensation of man’s salvation. God had an especially great intention for John: that he be the Prophet & Forerunner of Christ the Lord, the Savior of the world. Through His angels, God announced the births of Isaac to the childless Sarah, Samson to the childless wife of Manoah, & John the Forerunner to the childless Zacharias and Elizabeth. All of these were those for whom He had special intentions, & He foretold their birth through His angels. Additionally, the Prophet Malachi prophesied that before the Messiah’s birth His Forerunner would appear & would indicate His coming. It seems fitting to celebrate the conception of such an individual whose entrance into the world was indeed holy, though not necessarily immaculate.

  15. Maria G says:

    What is the name of the classical music that you included in this podcast?

  16. Pingback: Feast of St. John | RCIA Blog 2013-2014

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    Vivaldi – Four Seasons – “Summer” – 2nd movement.

  18. Widukind says:

    Just a few more cultural tidbits associated with the solemnity:
    – today currants were to be ripe for picking, in German and Low German they were called
    Johannesberen and Jannsbeeren – John’s-berries.
    – the firefly / lightening bug / glowworm made its appearance around this time – it fits in
    with the length of day and the shortness of night imagery (He must increase and I must
    decrease), in that even in the darkness there appears light. In Low German it was called
    Jannswürmken – John’s worm / bug.
    – pickle seed was planted.
    – and if it rained on his feast day, it would rain for seven days (or some other length of time).