QUAERITUR: St. John the Baptist and blessings

From a reader:

Dear Fr. Z,
Happy Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist!  Again, I want to thank you for all you do and especially for your clear analysis.
I have a question regarding this solemnity.  When I was growing up, my father would never allow us to go swimming before St. John the Baptist day because, he said, the water was blessed that day (and we would be protected from drowning). 
I have never heard about this from any other source.  Are you aware of any Church tradition regarding blessing of the water on this day?  Is it, perhaps, just a Polish tradition?

My my,… I have never heard that one.

Perhaps some reader can chime in.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. TLopez says:

    Possibly a related custom, from Puerto Rico: San Juan Bautista is one of the patron saints of the island. On the evening of June 23, we go to the beach and at midnight, we go in the water three times, backwards. I tried to find something on the internet to document this custom, but this is all I found (it’s described at the end of the third paragraph):


  2. mpm says:

    Our pastor had a piece in the bulletin this week saying his father said the same thing. He is from urban Philadelphia, and from past anecdotes of his I take it he is of German, Irish and Polish background, which is also how he describes the neighborhoods in which he grew up.

  3. a catechist says:

    TLopez–I’ve sen this filmed on a cooking show, of all places! “Daisy Cooks” has a whole show on the customs (and holiday food!) of Puerto Rico for the feast. It’s shown on US public television.

  4. Andrew, medievalist says:

    Certainly in northern climes like Poland, I wouldn’t want to go in the water before St John the Baptist…it’s too cold!

    Any relation to the Eastern blessings at Theophany?

  5. Victor says:

    I know a custom involving water from Ukraine. It is called “Ivana kupala” – I cannot really translate it, but it has to do with John (“Ivan”) and washing/taking a bath. Perhaps one of those greek catholic readers can chime in?

  6. Margie says:

    I grew up in Northeastern PA where there is a large Slavic (Polish, Ukrainian,etc.) population. My family is Ukrainian and we were taught the same thing. I have lived in the Philadelphia area for over 30 years and I have never heard this from anyone I know here.

  7. Ken says:

    From burning worn out sacramentals to the Saint John’s Wort, there are several customs associated with yesterday’s vigil and today’s first class feast:

  8. There’s a practice in San Juan City, Philippines, where their patron saint is honored by drenching or splashing water to passers-by and motorists. I was a “victim” of this several years ago. Fortunately, no one really complains about it (there have been some scuffles here and there) since this ritual has been going on for decades. People just tend to stay away from that place if they want to avoid being drenched. :)

  9. Edward Martin says:

    No swimming customs around here that I know of, but a special day here in St. John\’s, Newfoundland. Tradition has it that Cabot discovered Newfoundland on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in 1497, back in the day of Henry the VII.

  10. jaykay says:

    The tradition in Ireland for St. John’s Eve centres around bonfires, like Hallow E’en. It still survives, although not to the same extent as Hallow E’en. I’ve even heard people nowadays refer to “Mid-summer bonfires”, mistaking the feast with June 21st, they knowing nothing of St. John’s day.


    It’s also my name-day and I intended to get to the TLM this morning but it meant leaving home after 5.00.a.m. to be there for 8 a.m. and I overslept :( And no, nothing to do with participation in festivals last night (Johannalia?)

  11. Chris says:

    My grandmother gave us the same warning growing up in Buffalo (“don’t go in the pool before john the Baptist day or you could drown”). Now in Tennessee (and at 53!), I felt guilty going in the pool yesterday evening!

  12. Dr. Eric says:

    I can’t remember if it is this day or the Feast of St. John’s Martyrdom, but I have heard that certain Eastern European peoples don’t eat round objects or eat round objects on St. John’s Feast- depending on the tradition. Yes, it is confusing.

  13. Tom says:

    To celebrate this feast, I had a lunch of locusts and cockroaches. Did you know that only about half of all locust species are kosher?

  14. “To celebrate this feast, I had a lunch of locusts and cockroaches. Did you know that only about half of all locust species are kosher?”

    Did u wear your camel skin while you did it? LOL

  15. TLopez says:


    I have a funny story related to your lunch selection. When I was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, I was taught that St John Baptist ate a diet of ‘langostas y miel silvestre,’ which to us means ‘lobsters and wild honey’ and I remember thinking that that did not sound to me like such a terrible penance, but actually something rather sophisticated.

    It was not until I learned English that I realized that St John was not eating lobster but rather, bugs. I don’t know if ‘langosta’ means both ‘lobster’ and ‘locust’ in all Spanish-speaking countries, but it means both in Puerto Rico!

  16. iakovos says:

    Dr. Eric:

    The custom you are referring to is on the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, August 29th. Out of respect for the shameful act that was committed against him, Byzantine Catholics, by pious tradition but not under pain of sin, do not eat “round” foods such as apples, cabbage, etc., and do not eat food from a plate, but rather from a bowl. Obviously, this commemorates Salome presenting the Baptist’s head on a platter to her wicked mother. The Byzantine Divine Office for the Aug. 29th feast is full of wonderful images like “O, what a wicked dance” and “O, what shameless drunkenness” and “Herodias has finally lost her self-control.” I happen to know a priest whose birthday falls on the 28th of August. Vespers on the evening of his birthday always contains those phrases, much to his amusement.

    I would believe, but do not know for certain, that other Byzantine-Slavs, such as the Ukrainians and the Russians, follow this tradition.

  17. Ioannes Cerva says:

    I heard about the same custom from my Polish grandmother– she warned me not to swim before today. I never heard about the blessing of the waters, though– but it makes more sense with the blessing. But I do agree that it’s too cold to swim before today in Poland!

  18. Shelley says:

    The custom of swimming on St John Baptist’s day was a pre-revolutionary Russian one, too. All the unmarried young men and women would go into the rivers to celebrate Ivan Kupala (St John Baptist).

  19. Kate M. says:

    I experienced some really sweltering June 15th, 16th, 17th, etc. when the town pool would be open and friends would be calling to go cool off and I would have to decline saying, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t go. It’s not John the Baptist day yet; the water isn’t blessed.”

    But then again, I never drowned;)

  20. Sandra in Severn says:

    I hadn’t heard this in years… but grew-up with it from my mother’s parents (from Western PA, their families from Slovakia)

  21. David2 says:

    TLopez, in Australia, we have a species of lobster (thenus orientalis), which is found in the waters off Queensland and the tropical north coasts.

    We call it the “Moreton Bay Bug”. Don’t know where that name came from!

  22. Mariana says:

    Father, here in Finland you’re not supposed to sit on stones (walls made of stone, and such) before St.John’s Day! This is good advise health-wise, as it can be definitely cool-ish before that day. After St. John the weather ususally turns hot.

  23. John P. says:

    In the book “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” by Francis X. Weiser, this custom is mentioned as being prevalent in Poland and parts of Europe. It did not mention such a custom existing in the United States, but that particular book was published in the 1950s.


  24. irishgirl says:

    What interesting customs for St. John’s Day!

    The days also get shorter after June 24-‘He [Christ] must increase, and I [John] must decrease’.

  25. adrian says:

    A friend of mine is from Coahuila, Mexico. She said that on St. John the baptist’s day her mother would take them all to the river to take a shower, and they would also have a hair cut.

  26. amsjj says:

    I’m familiar with the haircut one. As I recall it, cutting your hair on St. John the Baptist’s day would mean it would grow out very long (since he never cut his). Maybe this is a Mexican tradition?

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