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St. John the Baptist

24 June 2010

Unlike most saints, St. John the Baptist is celebrated on the date of his birth and not on his martyrdom. St. Gabriel, the Archangel, is quoted in the Gospel according to St. Luke (1.15) as saying that “even before his birth he, [John], will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” This statement leads to some traditional Catholics thinking that he, like Jesus and St. Mary, was born without sin; they make sure to note that this does not mean he was conceived without sin, like Jesus and Mary, but received grace after conception but before birth (whatever that means).

From my Arlésien post last year on this date:

Today is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which was accompanied last night by a huge throw-down à la 16th century Arles on the Boulevard de Lices, which is part of the major road through Arles. La Saint-Jean, as it’s called in French, is celebrated in a lot of places, most especially in Québec, where it’s their provincial holiday. In the Middle Ages, a fire would be lit on La Saint-Jean and old, worn-out sacramentals would be disposed of en masse. Also, because as the Creed says, “We believe in the Holy Spirit…who has spoken through the prophets.” Since St. John the Baptist was principal amongst all the prophets as he was “the voice in the desert crying out, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” and since a symbol of Holy Spirit is fire, the sacramental disposal also took on a symbolic dimension apart from its more practical side. Today, it’s just a reason to jump over fires–for which, as a proud National Champion, I have a soft place in my heart.

The festival actually lasts an entire week, but the night of 23 June (the Eve of Saint-Jean) is the biggest huzzah during the week. The women of the town dress up in traditional dress, bouquets of herbes de Provence in toe, and parade through the streets behind a marching band of people playing instruments that resemble oboes, wood flutes, and bagpipes. (A note on the bagpipes: whereas the rest of the country was inhabited by the the Gauls and then the Franks, the South had the Celts and the Ligures. Though it’s a shot in the dark, I’d imagine that the Celts are where the bagpipes came from.) The whole time, a small fire, the feu de Saint Jean, is carried about the village in a gigantic lantern, supported by long parallel poles on its base with a man at each end of the poles. Usually, there are huge bonfires, as I mentioned, but there weren’t any last night because the Mistral, the wind that blows through Provence, was too strong and would have been a hazard. It’s a huge festival celebrating the area’s local traditions, language, and style, apart from the cultural domination of Paris. Then, there was a band that played music that was a weird blend between Celtic style music and folk music at large. The leader of the band then decided to teach us those in the crowd that were still there (it was around 23:30 at the time) how to dance one of those circle style dances you see so often in European folk dancing. I convinced the other American students I was with that we should also join in. It was absolutely incredible to be suddenly immersed into this frenzy of energy and local pride.

I’m sure it amused the Arlésiens to see these American college students joining in their fun, but I learned a ton listening to speeches that were delivered. It’s incredible how different the culture is in Provence. For a very, very long time, Provence had absolutely nothing to do with Paris. The culture here is closer to other Latin countries, like Spain or Italy, than Paris and the rest of the north of France.

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