Today, June 24th is normally celebrated as the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. It is not celebrated as such today because very few feasts supersede the normal Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day. This is because each Sunday is to be celebrated as a “little” Easter, a feast of Jesus’ Resurrection, and the Resurrection transcends and supersedes every other day and event in the Christian faith. So, we transfer the feast of Jesus’ cousin, John, to tomorrow.
The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 recounts the events surrounding John’s conception and birth in relationship to Jesus’ conception and birth. It is not entirely clear from the Scriptural account when John was born, but it is does seem clear that Elizabeth was pregnant for some months, perhaps five or six, before Mary conceived. So, when the traditional date of Jesus’ birth became December 25, the date of John’s birth was set six months “before” that, on June 24/25.
This scheme also roughly corresponds with the winter and summer solstices. There is a theological reason for this association. It is encapsulated in John’s words about Jesus from the Gospel of John: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This theological statement is symbolically encoded into the Christian calendar. Starting around the Feast of John the Baptist (and the summer solstice), the days get shorter. This represents John’s decrease, until Christmas (and the winter solstice) when Jesus is born and the days begin to get longer, representing Christ’s “increase.”
There are lots of traditional ways to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, as well as a lot of interesting folklore associated with the day. Some of this represents the mixture of Christian customs with customs and celebrations surrounding the summer solstice that originate in northern European pagan traditions. A lot of this stuff is quite interesting, and learning about and recovering some of these customs might be worthwhile, as long as we do not lose sight of the theological significance of the day. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father , prophesied:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David…
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace