The Nativity of St. John the Baptist: A feast of light, hope and wonderful food


Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and a check of the internet reveals that this is a pretty big deal in a whole lot of the world.

From Monaco — where the royal family assembled on the palace balcony this morning to wave at thousands celebrating folks to Italy where folks along the Riviera gather at the beach for a long night of relaxation, to Brazil where it’s at the heart of two weeks of festivities — and beyond, this day of lingering light is a time to bask in the warmth of faith with family and friends.

I didn’t have much of a sense of this celebration until about 15 years ago when I was invited to a Latino parish in Long Branch to enjoy a festa there. That particular year, they were celebrating the gift of a statue of John the Baptist. The food was wonderful, the music was great and the liturgy that preceded the community meal was heartwarming. I was hooked. I began reading everything I could about the customs, tradition and cuisine connected to the observance which, truth to tell, is a baptized version of ancient summer solstice frolics.

Ask Jeeves wryly notes, for instance, that it is observed “by Europeans of the “Cultural, Pagan, Christian and Celtic type” — to mark the period of time that the “ancients” considered midsummer and later, the nativity of St.  John the Baptist. In bygone days, folks celebrated with wonderful processions, colorful liturgies, festivals, bonfires, feasting and singing.

While some of the customs that survive — particularly Maypole and (argh!) Morris dancing — hark back to pagan days, Christian customs related to the day are still around and practiced in many nations. In the British Isles, where gardening is a way of life, faithful  are apt to gather up bunches of “St. John’s Wort” – the perennial herb named for the saint which to this day is seen by some as a talisman against evil. Since medieval times, it’s been hung over doors, windows and icons and other devotional pictures for that very reason.

In Central European countries, its customary to make beribboned flower wreaths to wear on the head, hang on the front door or float in rivers and streams in honor of Christ’s Baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

Bonfires are still the fashion in many Scandinavian countries where they are used to burn worn out sacramentals and to serve as a symbol of John whom Christ called a “burning and shining light.”

As to food, one of my very favorite sites, Fisheaters.com, reports that it’s the thing to eat strawberries on this day. The site reveals an old and charming tradition that on this day, Our Lady accompanies children who go strawberry picking. With all of our Jersey Fresh U Pick farms so close by, it would be wonderful to scoop up the little ones in the family, share the story with them and take them on a picking expedition.

Some of you may recall that I claim a touch of Swedish heritage from one of my paternal great grandmothers which I use to every advantage when attending Scandinavian festivals or shopping in Scandinavian delis for the food I have come to relish over the last few years. On this day, it’s Swedish tradition to eat pickled herrring, boiled potatoes, sour cream, crisp bread, beer and schnapps while celebrating the light of faith.

In Spain, figs and a savory tuna pie are on the menu. The Irish consumed something called “goody” — white bread broken in pieces and boiled with milk, sugar and spices over a fire — which I have yet to try.

Go to fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost3.html for more information and insight on this wonderful feast which tonight -weather permitting – we’ll observe by lighting a very small bonfire in the very small fire pit — actually a WalMart hibachi — and burning a small collection of sacramentals –  a brown scapula battered by long wear and a small, wooden rosary too fragmented to repair that came apart after way too many nights of falling asleep with it wrapped around my hand.

As to food, since the Baptist is known to have fondness for honey,  it seemed like a good idea to use recipes where honey is a key ingredient. Mindful of Pope Benedict’s recent exhortation to focus our prayers and attention to Christians in the Middle East, I opted for dishes native to that region — dishes, I could speculate — that might have been known to the Baptist in his own time.

Chicken Tajine

Ingredients — 8 skinless chicken thighs; 1/4 cup of honey (I use local honey) Jersey honey; 1 large, sweet onion, chopped; 3 cloves minced garlic; 2 cinnamon sticks (3 inches long); 1 lemon, juiced; 2 teaspoons turmeric; 1/2 cup dried apricots, quartered.

Directions: Arrange chicken thighs in the bottom of a Dutch oven or deep casserole. Pour honey over the chicken; sprinkle with the onion and then add the minced garlic; Add the cinnamon sticks and sprinkle with lemon juice and turmeric. Top with apricot quarters and bake in a preheated, 350 degree oven for about 2 hours or until fork can be inserted in chicken with ease. Remove cinnamon sticks from the chicken mixture and serve with rice.

For dessert try Honey Mint Yogurt

Ingredients: 1 pint yogurt of choice; 1/4 cup honey; 1/4 cup granola; 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons fresh mint, chopped fine. Combine all ingredients and blend well.

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