St. John the Baptist: notes and oldie PODCAzT

Today is the Feast of the one whom the Lord called the greatest man ever born of woman.

Here is his entry in the 2005 Martyrologium Romanum:

Sollemnitas Nativitatis sancti Ioannis Baptistae, Praecursoris Domini, qui iam in utero matris, Spiritu Sancto repletae, exsultavit gaudio ad humanae salutis adventum cuiusque ipsa nativitas Dominum Christum prophetavit; et tanta gratia refulsit in eo, ut ipse Dominus de illo diceret neminem maiorem inter natos mulierum Ioanne Baptistae.

I’ll let you readers provide your own perfect versions.

Let’s have a look at the…

Deus, qui beatum Ioannem Baptistam suscitasti,
ut perfectam plebem Christo Domino praepararet,
da populis tuis spiritalium gratiam gaudiorum,
et omnium fidelium mentes dirige
in viam salutis et pacis.

I like the sound of the ends of the clauses – suscitasti… praepararet… gaudiorum and then a big change with salutis et pacis.   Remember!  These prayers are to be sung!   Suscitasti is, as you now recognize, a syncopated form, short for suscitavi­sti, which would have diminished the rhythmic coherence in the first three clauses.

O God, who raised up blessed John the Baptist,
so that he would prepare a perfect people for Christ the Lord,
grant to your peoples the grace of spiritual joys
and guide the minds of all the faithful into the way of salvation and peace.

This modern Collect of the 1970 Roman Missal is based on the Collect of olden days:

Deus, qui praesentem diem honorabilem nobis in beati Ioannis nativitate fecisti: da populis tuis spiritualium gratiam gaudiorum; et omnium fidelium mentes dirige in viam salutis aeternae.

Perhaps the terrible wars of the 20th c., by far more bellicose than even the 16th c., drove the composers of the newer version to include the petition for peace.  One can hardly object.  The first part of the present Collect also is a bit more theological and significant.  All in all, it seems to me that the newer Collect represents an improvement over the older version: which we cannot always say when comparing old and new prayers.

In Rome today on the feast of St. John it is the custom to eat snails.    It is nice to have as your Patron the great Baptist, for I get two feasts a year, his Nativity and his Beheading!  In honor of the memory, if I can’t get snails tonight, I might try for mussels or some other mud bug.

Snails apart, I cannot help but remember a marvelous St. John’s Day when rather than snails I had wonderous mussels with a dear friend, an occasion I would repeat every year, if I could. 

For the Vigil of St. John in the old Roman Ritual the priest would once bless bonfires!  

This is lovely custom calls to mind that many places celebrated the feasts of saints with great festivity.  By this day all the cuttings and trimmings of the orchards and vineyards were dried and crackly and ready to be burned.  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.  After the usual introduction, the priest would bless the fire:

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.

It is almost as if the fire, and our celebration, is baptized.  At this point the fire is sprinkled with holy water and everyone sings the hymn Ut quaent laxis which is also the Vespers hymn.

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

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 – probably taken from S-ancte I-oannes) 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!  

Finally, here is a PODCAzT I did on St. John, an oldie.

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) preached about St. John in Carthage in 401 (s. 288).  This isn’t, btw, the same reading as you would find in today’s Office of Readings, which is from s. 293).  We also get into Ut queant laxis.

Build a fire tonight, eat snails, and sing something in honor of St. John!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in PODCAzT, Saints: Stories & Symbols, WDTPRS and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Tom in NY says:

    Sollemnitas Nativitatis sancti Ioannis Baptistae, Praecursoris Domini, qui iam in utero matris, Spiritu Sancto repletae, exsultavit gaudio ad humanae salutis adventum cuiusque ipsa nativitas Dominum Christum prophetavit; et tanta gratia refulsit in eo, ut ipse Dominus de illo diceret neminem maiorem inter natos mulierum Ioanne Baptistae.
    “The Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, forerunner of the Lord, who whilst in his mother’s womb, when his mother was filled with the Holy Ghost, leapt for joy at the coming of salvation for human kind, and whose own birth foretold the Anointed Lord. And such joy shone forth in him, that the Lord himself said that no man among those born of women was greater than John the Baptist.”
    Can we consider that the bridge between the Old and New Covenants was through the Jordan as a mikva?
    Salutationes omnibus.

  2. jrotond2 says:

    A friend of mine is hosting a St. John the Baptist party on Saturday in which there will be a bonfire, Vespers (in English) and the singing of the “Ut queant” as the fire is lit. We try do our little part to restore Catholic holidays, customs, and celebrations here in South Jersey.


  3. irishgirl says:

    I read a very informative-and entertaining-article in one of my issues of ‘The Latin Mass’ magazine about summer feastdays, and especially on Saint John the Baptist. I remember seeing that antiphon with the origins of the music notes, and about the bonfires.

    ‘Snails’? EWWWW….

    But of course….shells!

    Happy Birthday to the Precursor of Our Lord….and His cousin, too!

  4. wanda says:

    Fire – check!
    Singing – check!
    Snails – ?? (sound of brakes screeching to a stop.)

    Can’t do the snails. We have them as beneficial little inhabitants of our pond. No can eat. No can do.

    How about a shrimp or a crab? Probably not the same idea.

  5. Tom in NY says:

    erratum:joy(2nd); corrigendum:grace.
    Causa patientiae gratias ago.

  6. pfreddys says:

    A great custom for the next feastday of the Precursor (August 29th) among the Eastern Rite Churches I often frequent is not to eat anything on a plate on that day as St. John’s head was put on a plate. So you may want to do some advance planning for a meal in a bowl on that day.

  7. wanda says:

    Thank you for the podcast, Father. It may be an oldie, but it was fresh and new for me. Fascinating about the do, re, mi..never knew that.

    Happy Feast Day, Father Z.! Jasmine (mine is loaded with buds, can’t wait for it to bust out into bloom, I carry it into the house in the evenings, the fragrance is enough to knock you down.) James Taylor, too?! Nice.

  8. AnAmericanMother says:

    And a happy feast day to all, especially our host.

    I still remember a memorable St. John’s Eve in Bavaria, back in the late 60s. Now THAT was a party! Huge bonfire, much singing (probably including the Ut queant but I don’t remember) and very much beer.

    It’s probably just coincidental that in Grimm’s Tales and other folklore, funny stuff happens on St. John’s Eve. Although if you have enough beer . . . .

    I have never done snails and will have to substitute some of the nice crawfish tails in the freezer. Crawfish pie! (it’s a cinch to make, even the roux because you don’t have to get it as dark as a gumbo roux. And then you just saute’ onions, bell peppers, celery, and a bit of garlic with the roux, when they’re nicely cooked you add the crawfish, sliced green onions, a little parsley and a couple tablespoons of Cajun seasoning, let the whole thing cool about 10 minutes and then pop it in a pie crust, cover it with another crust, and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes. Very simple thanks to the frozen crawfish tails at Publix (I hear they’re also available at CostCo and Sam’s Club).

  9. FrCharles says:

    As usual, I bring nothing to the translation table when beat to the comment box by the splendid work of Tom in NY, whose salutations are a constant encouragement in these posts. Nevertheless, I would have stressed the novelty of John’s proclamation in utero suggested by the iam, and might have said “grace” instead of “joy.” :) Peace to all, and thanks for your witness.

  10. bnaasko says:

    When I was young in Toivola, Michigan, the largely Finnish community that my great Grandparents immigrated to in the 19th century, this day, or rather last night, was seen as the start of summer. St. John’s is known as Juhanus in Finnish, and the community would gater on the beach of Lake Superior for a potluck, polkas and a GIANT bonfire that took about a week to build. In the past they were able to follow the old Finnish tradition and build the fire on a raft and launch it out into the lake, but State regulators ended that practice in the 70s.

    Unfortunately, both in Toivola, and in Finland, St John has been lost in the resurgance of neo-paganism. The symbolism of the fire in the water is no longer even understood. State authorities in Finland have officially moved the celebration to the saturday closest to the summer solstice. and even in Toivola, MI, were a visitor to ask what the party was about, they would get an answer that contained the words “midsummer” and “solstice”. No one would speak of baptism or the fire of God’s Word.

    Tonight my family will celebrate by going to mass.

  11. Tom in NY says:

    @Fr Charles:
    Gratias causa salutationum ago. Etiam grace meliorem sensum quam joy(secundum).
    Pax et bonum.

  12. AJP says:

    Does anyone know why snails are associated with St. John’s feast today?

    bnaasko, thank you so much for that post about the Finnish customs surrounding today’s feast. I also have Finnish ancestry and while I am proud of this heritage, it has always saddened me how little influence Catholicism has had on Finnish culture and customs. Finland was Catholic for such a brief period of time. So it was really neat to read about Finns traditionally celebrated today’s feast day. Were these celebrations encouraged by the Lutherans or was Juhanus viewed as too pagan/too Catholic?

  13. Sandy says:

    Happy Feast Day, Father, and may St. John also intercede for our oldest son, who was born on this day. God works in such interesting ways – we never know the exact day a baby will be born, but we have names picked out. This son’s patron saint is St. John the Baptist (middle name), and he was born on this feast day. One daughter is named for Mother Mary and was born on the feast of the Assumption!

  14. AnAmericanMother says:

    Re: snails

    Here is a 1930 Time magazine article that says the eating of snails is “[a]n old Italian custom, this honorary snail-eating is not (legend to the contrary) a rite of imitation derived from St. Matthew’s assertion that ‘His [John the Baptist’s] meat was locusts and wild honey.'”

    Read more:,9171,846823,00.html#ixzz0rncDI8CE

    But they say what it is NOT, not what it IS . . . another article I found noted that eating snails is traditional to ward off misfortune, since snails symbolize disharmony.

    Apparently frog races (with eating of the contestants thereafter) and donkey races were also featured at one time.

    I did learn incidentally that cochineal is known as “St. John’s Blood” because the insects are traditionally collected on St. John’s Day.

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Sorry. AnAmericanMother, but I did not see your post-some delay here. I did not mean to be redundant.

  16. FrCharles says:

    @Tom in NY. You make my day. Sorry for missing the second entry. –Frater Carolus Novi Portus

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    Redundancy in a good cause is NEVER wasted!!!!

  18. irishgirl says:

    I should have known that this is Father Z’s ‘name day’….so… HAPPY FEASTDAY, FATHER Z!

    I didn’t know that the Finns celebrated St. John’s Day-neat!

    The Canadian Province of Quebec celebrated ‘St. Jean-Baptiste’ Day because he is one of its patron Saints; unfortunately, it’s now just plain old ‘Quebec Day’. Sad…. :(

  19. Supertradmum says:


    Thanks, and I like you. Happy Name Day, Father, and all Johns named after the great prophet. Oh, and ladies as well-Joanna, Johanna, Baptista, et al.

  20. Snails today just isn’t something we “do” in west-central WI…sorry.
    But FIRE?
    Love to build a big one, bless it, and pray that it burns away the iniquities all around us…unfortunately there is a “playground” less than ten feet from our back door…ain’t gonna happen here…
    I love the texts from the EF on St. John’s Birth.
    Thanks, Fr. Z.
    Maybe someday at our new priory we can build a big old bonfire, bless it…and eat ground squirrel? (plentiful, I’m afraid). Yuck! Better have a good midwest bar-b-que with beef and pork!

  21. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for the background information on the solfège and how it evolved over time. As a musician and a Sound of Music fanatic, I enjoyed that. I knew that the solfège syllables came from a hymn, but I didn’t know until now which one.

    Also, thank you for all of your wonderful podcazts, Father Z. I usually don’t get to leave comments for them because I don’t typically get the chance to listen to them right away, but I do want to let you know that they are appreciated. :)

  22. Gulielmus says:

    Something else to celebrate– the great third act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger takes place on “Johannestag,” the Feast of St John the Baptist. David, Hans Sachs’ apprentice, has written a song about St John and notes that it is his master’s name day.

    In honor of which I am now listening to the Prize Song and final chorus.

  23. tioedong says:

    Here in the Philippines, you get water thrown on you on the feast day of St. John the Baptist. More HERE.

  24. irishgirl says:

    nazareth priest, I always enjoy your posts! Even when you rant!

    You always tell it like it is!

    ‘Ground Squirrel’? Do you mean ‘squirrel patties’? EWWWW! I’d rather have beef and pork bar-b-qued!

  25. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thanks, supertradmum! My husband (and his father) are John, my daughter (and my mother) are Joanne.

    Unfortunately there’s a burn ban on here, so we weren’t able to have a bonfire.


    I hadn’t even thought of that. Squirrel patties . . . YECCHHH! I hope he meant ground-squirrel (i.e. the ubiquitous and destructive chipmunk, Tamias striatus around here, but other species out west). I wouldn’t eat either one on a bet.

  26. Dr. Eric says:

    Depending on the type of Eastern Catholic/Orthodox Church one attends, either one is supposed to abstain from or eat things that are round (head shaped) on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist and to not eat anything on a plate or use a knife.

  27. Dr. Eric says:

    Apparently, the Feast of St. John’s Nativity is also a day for cat burning.

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