Monday 24 June 2024

Wreaths for the Feast of St. John the Baptist

The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is assigned to the eighth day before the Kalends of July (24 June) so that it falls six months before the celebration of Christmas. The proximity to the Summer Solstice is suggestive of the words of St. John the Baptist in the Gospel: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). The summer festivals celebrated on this feast day have diminished in the English world. William Turner (c. 1510-1568) mentions one lost English tradition, of children making wreaths from the flowers of the fields:

CYANUS [Centaurea cyanus, Cornflower]
Cyanus a Gallis teste Ruellio blauium dicitur. Hanc ego herbam arbitror esse quam Northumbria uocat a Blewblaw aut a Blew bottell. Hanc corollis intexunt pueri eo tempore quo Baptistae sacra peraguntur.

Cyanus, according to Ruellius, is called Blavium by the French. I think that this is the herb which [people in] Northumberland call a Blewblaw or a Blew bottell. Children entwine this [herb] to wreaths when the Baptist’s holy day is celebrated.

GITHAGO siue NIGELLASTRVM [Agrostemma githago, Corncockle]
Githago, siue Grece mauis, pseudomelanthion, est herba illa procera, que in tritico flavescente existit. Inde corollas apud Morpetenses meos pueri in die divi Baptistae texunt. Vulgus appellat Coccle aut pople.

Githago, or Pseudomelanthion if you prefer it in Greek, is the well-known tall herb which appears in ripening wheat. On the day of Saint John the Baptist children among my Morpethians make wreaths of it. The common people call it Coccle or Pople.
William Turner, Libellus de re herbaria novus (1538), ed. & trans. by Mats Rydén, Hans Helander & Kerstin Olsson (Uppsala : Almqvist & Wiksell, 1999), pp. 60-61 & pp. 64-65.