Rediscovering Christ in Old Summer Traditions

Nature is abuzz with activity in the summer months. Animals and plants flourish in their life-giving activity, while we, oftentimes, flourish in our streaming from one activity to the next. Though summer is filled with life it is the season of “in between” for Christians. The Easter celebrations waned months ago and Christmas remains a dream. Are there traditions, besides Vacation Bible School and the occasional ice cream social, which Christians might observe to keep the light of Christ burning?

A somewhat forgotten holy day, particularly for Protestants, is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist celebrated near the summer solstice on June 24th. In celebration of St. John’s Day people in northern Europe used to light bonfires. Sometimes they lit a wooden wheel wrapped in straw, rolled it down a hill while children ran along side with sticks guiding and keeping the wheel upright. At the bottom of the hill, once the wheel finished burning, the burnt pieces were distributed to bring good luck. The burning wheel, once a symbol of the sun, became a symbol of the Sun of Righteousness for whom John was the precursor.

Celebrating the Nativity of St. John on June 24th stems from the Gospel accounts which state that John was born six months prior to Jesus. Included in some celebrations of St. John’s Day was a custom of charity. Landowners set out large tables filled with food and ale for the poor. In Slavic regions, festivals called Kupalos (from the word kupati which means “to bathe”) were held focusing upon the theme of water. Persons ventured to large bodies of water and bathed as the sun met the horizon, believing that God’s power might bless them in this meeting.

Perhaps these old traditions surrounding St. John’s Day died off for good reasons. Might there be a modern way, however, to rekindle some of the spirit that went into the old celebrations? Here are some suggestions:

1) Let’s carry our personal devotional life outdoors. The summer months do not exist only for continual activity. Enjoy the fruits of creation by slowing down and spending time soaking up the life freely given in Christ.

2) Let’s hold worship outdoors. Perhaps we can incorporate some of the same symbolism from the old traditions (fire and water), or explore new ones. Summer outdoor services are a wonderful way to begin incorporating all of the senses within our worship. There, of course, might be some safety issues with the rolling of burning wheels! Mass bathing in the summer, however, might be more fun than joining the polar bear club in January.

3) Let’s throw a banquet for the “least and last” of our society on St. John’s Day. We might find that in doing so we might be inclined to do so again and again. Only instead of setting up tables filled with food, might we actually interact.

Sometimes when we think of old John the Baptist we think “bad news” with his wild ranting about repentance and unquenchable fire. Who wants to listen to some unshaven guy dressed in camel’s hair? Still, people flocked to him because what sometimes sounds like harshness to us sounded like “new life” to them. He prepared the way for that new life. Celebrating St. John’s Day might help us to remember, in the hustling of summer, that, like the sun upon the horizon, new life, new hope can and will meet us, even when we are stuck in the in between time.