Before it was the title of a Nikolai Gogol short story, St. John’s Eve was one of the most festive days of the year, and also one of the strangest. Much like All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, St. John’s Eve (June 23) was a night of revelry, bonfires, treat-begging, and terrifying incursions from the spirit world. The cultural weight of St. John’s Eve has faded in the West, aside from the occasional bonfire party.
A few nights ago I participated in a group reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play set on this same night. The mythical Theseus is cast as the newlywed skeptic who disbelieves in fairies, trying to force an unwanted marriage on the poor Hermia. Meanwhile, the fairy-king Oberon is dealing with his own marital difficulties in questionable ways, particularly by making his queen Titania fall in love with a donkey-headed mortal actor. Many romantic hijinks later, and all the lovers have finally settled with the beloveds they desired. It’s not exactly a St. John’s Eve festival, but the feast’s customary ties to nuptial ceremonies are evident throughout.
Why has Halloween found purchase in popular culture, even to the point of absurd excess, while the spooky June holy day has fallen into disuse? Maybe because our increasingly irreligious society can only bear one annual celebration of preternatural invasions. Maybe the autumn weather has something to do with it—there is something romantically melancholy about the chill air and falling leaves. Maybe its questionable ties to a pagan Celtic festival has given Halloween the aspect of forbidden, and therefore desirable, fruit.
St. John’s birth (his beheading has its own feast day) was heralded by one such fantastical invasion, when St. Gabriel frightened the prophet’s poor father dumb. The closing “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia is a St. John’s Eve story, and one could truly imagine the Devil retreating in cowardice at the birth of the Forerunner of Christ. Who knows what temptations the adult John had to face in the desert, but surely they could have competed with St. Anthony’s. The bonfires too are a reminder of the Gospel description of John: “He was a burning and a shining light, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.”
It really is strange how little impact St. John’s Eve has made in the history of Western literature, aside from the Bard’s comedy and the occasional folktale. It is just another piece of our Catholic cultural history lost in the march into modernity. Perhaps if there is a second Romantic poetic movement in the West, its poets will consider the feast’s exalted Shakespearean affiliation as a reasonable excuse to abandon the commercialized Halloween for something more authentic.
One week left until Midsummer’s Eve. Start collecting faggots for the bonfire. Stock up on sweet beers and strawberries. Keep an eye out for St. John’s Wort for the eve’s collection.
For St. John is about to be born.