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Catholic Activity: Bonfire for the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

Have a summer bonfire to celebrate the feast of St. John the Baptist, and pray this blessing as a group.


Since his birthday comes in the middle of summer, it is an ancient custom to celebrate it that night with a great bonfire. Granny Newland remembers such bonfires in Ireland, from which coals were always taken to lay in each of a man's fields. The significance of the bonfire was taken from Zachary's canticle, where he sang out in praise of John that he would "enlighten them that sat in darkness." A cook-out is inevitable with a bonfire; and although it's hard to think of any use for grasshoppers on the menu (which is too bad when they are so plentiful), a comb of honey would be fitting. There is an interesting connection between the bonfire and St. John as the last of the prophets of the Old Law. To celebrate the end of the Old Law, people used to burn in the bonfires all the things they had been trying to get rid of (carted off to the dump) all year. This is an idea for people who are short of fuel for bonfires.

Another beautiful tradition was to decorate the door of one's home with "birch leaves, St. John's wort, and white lilies" on the eve of this feast. If you are not acquainted with St. John's wort by name, you must be by sight — having ignored it as a weed (with small yellow blossoms) all these years. The wild-flower books in your local library will tell you which weed it is you are to pick. Another tradition was to hang out, along with the flowers, a lighted lantern (in our century, the porch light) on the night before the feast. How nice this would be if all the neighbors left their porch lights on this eve to salute this saint who enlightened those who sat in darkness.

After Mass and Holy Communion in his honor, next best tribute is to have the father or some older member of the family read the Blessing of a Bonfire, sprinkle it with holy water, and before the picnic, lead the group in the reading of Zachary's canticle. It would be ideal if a priest could read the blessing and lead the prayers.

Blessing of a Bonfire

Leader. Our help is in the name of the Lord. All. Who hath made heaven and earth. Let us pray. O Lord God, Father almighty, unfailing Ray and Source of all light, sanctify this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to thee, Who are Light eternal. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Then the group divides and reads alternate lines of the Canticle of Zachary (to be found in Luke 1:68-70).

John is the patron of bird dealers, of cutters and tailors, and is invoked against spasms, convulsions, epilepsy, hail, and prayed to for protection of lambs.

He is one of the patrons of French Canada and they celebrate his feast with great devotion, reckoning it by the calendar as we do, and another way as well. It falls on the day of the year when in their part of the world day begins to last longer than night. Like St. John, they say, as he said: "He must increase, but I must decrease."

Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956

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