As the feast of Christmas Christianised the celebration of the winter solstice with the theme of the “unconquered sun”, so it would seem does the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist – six months earlier – Christianise the summer solstice celebration from traditional religions.
Emergence of the feast in the early 5th century
Three factors seem to have influenced the emergence of this feast in the early fifth century. The first is probably the emergence in the early fourth century of the feast of Christmas. The second is the verse of Luke gospel where the angel tells Mary at the annunciation that her “kinswoman Elizabeth already in her old age and considered barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). The third is that three authorities from the 5th and 6th centuries – St Augustine (354-430), the Martyrology of Jerome and the Calendar of Carthage – all emphasise that this feast celebrates John’s earthly birthday, and not (as was customary with martyrs) the day of their death, or their birthday into heaven (dies natalis). It is one of very few feasts left in the Roman Calendar that have a vigil liturgy.
Christians have long interpreted the life of John the Baptist as a preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, and the circumstances of his birth, as recorded in the New Testament, are miraculous. John’s pivotal place in the gospel is seen in the emphasis Luke gives to the announcement of his birth and the event itself—both made prominently parallel to the same occurrences in the life of Jesus.
The sole biblical account of the birth of John the Baptist comes from the Gospel of Luke. John’s parents, Zechariah or Zachary — a Jewish priest — and Elizabeth, were without children and both were beyond the age of child-bearing. During Zechariah’s rotation to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot to offer incense at the Golden Altar in the Holy Place. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife would give birth to a child, and that they should name him John. However, because Zechariah did not believe the message of Gabriel, he was rendered speechless until the time of John’s birth. At that time, his relatives wanted to name the child after his father, and Zechariah wrote, “His name is John”, whereupon he recovered his ability to speak (Luke 1:5–25; 1:57–66). Following Zechariah’s obedience to the command of God, he was given the gift of prophecy, and foretold the future ministry of John (Luke 1:67–79), this prophecy forming the text of the Benedictus canticle.
At the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she would conceive of the Holy Ghost, he also informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was already six months pregnant (Luke 1:36). Mary then journeyed to visit Elizabeth. Luke’s Gospel recounts that the baby “leapt” in Elizabeth’s womb at the greeting of Mary (Luke 1:44).
The Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24 comes three months after the celebration on March 25 of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy, and six months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The purpose of these festivals is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way. The Nativity of John the Baptist anticipates the feast of Christmas.
The Nativity of John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church, being listed by the Council of Agde in 506 as one of that region’s principal festivals, where it was a day of rest and, like Christmas, was celebrated with three Masses: a vigil, at dawn, and at midday. It is one of the patronal feasts of the Order of Malta.
The question would naturally arise as to why the celebration falls on June 24 rather than June 25 if the date is to be precisely six months before Christmas. It has often been claimed that the Church authorities wanted to Christianize the pagan solstice celebrations and for this reason advanced Saint John’s feast as a substitute. This explanation is questionable because in the Middle Ages the solstice took place around the middle of June due to the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar. It was only in 1582, through the Gregorian calendar reform, that the solstice returned to June 21 as it had been in the fourth century.
Therefore, a more likely reason why the festival falls on June 24 lies in the Roman way of counting, which proceeded backward from the Kalends (first day) of the succeeding month. Christmas was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January” (Octavo Kalendas Januarii). Consequently, Saint John’s Nativity was put on the “eighth day before the Kalends of July.” However, since June has only thirty days, in our present (Germanic) way of counting, the feast falls on June 24.
Nevertheless, the fact of the feast falling around the time of the solstice is considered by many to be significant, recalling the words of John the Baptist with regard to Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).