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From the Rectory
June 2009

You may not guess it by looking out of the window and watching the wind and rain, but June ushers in Midsummer. June is always a favourite month for weddings. I can't think why, it always rains in June. Both of my children were married in June - it rained both times!

From the earliest times people have celebrated Midsummer. It's a wonderful time of the year, weather permitting, the time when darkness seems almost banished, when it goes on being daytime for so many hours out of the twenty-four that it seems absurd to try to go to sleep at all. Midsummer is the time for merriment, and deserves to be celebrated. Our ancestors celebrated in style, and even today most people have a sense of celebrating summer when they hold fetes, garden parties and BBQ's.

A famous voice from the history and culture of this country speaks to us of midsummer's magic: Shakespeare with his immortal A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now there is more in this play than meets the eye. Of course it is all about young love, and love-potions, and fairies, which is entirely right for a midsummer fantasy. But what about the significance of the ass's head? Did you know why an ass's head should appear in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

June 24th. is celebrated by the Church as the birthday of St. John the Baptist. The feast-days of most saints, of course, are not celebrated on their birthdays. A saint's feast-day is almost always the day they died and went to heaven. But two people who were particularly close to our Lord during his lifetime here on earth have their actual birthdays celebrated. They are Mary, his mother, and St. John the Baptist, who greeted him while they were both still babies in the womb.

Why was this day chosen, all those centuries ago, by the Church as his birthday? The clue lies in Christmas. The Church decided to celebrate the birth of our Saviour on or around the winter solstice, which is why we have it on December 25th. At one time the birthday of St. John was celebrated in January, to emphasise his nearness to our Lord. But it was realised that it would be far more accurate to have it on June 24th. Why? Because at the Annunciation (which we celebrate on March 25th.) the Angel Gabriel told Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth was also to have a baby and was, 'now in her sixth month'. So St. John the Baptist, Elizabeth's child, was born three months after that announcement - which brings us to June and Midsummer Day. So the date was fixed - and in medieval England St. John's birthday was sometimes called the 'Summer Christmas.'

This is where the ass's head comes in. An Ass, of course, is always a major feature of any Christmas play or pageant. Mary rode on a donkey into Bethlehem, and Joseph put her and the baby on the donkey again for the flight into Egypt. You rarely see a Nativity scene without an ass in the corner of the stable.

When the feast of St. John was moved to Midsummer, a few stray bits of Christmassy stuff went with it. That is why in some old Midsummer festivities you will see a man with an ass's head appearing, and it is why Bottom the weaver ends up wearing an ass's head in the Dream. There is another reason why midsummer is linked with St. John. He said of Jesus, 'He must increase, and I must decrease'. After midsummer, the days start getting shorter again - after Christmas they start getting longer. Now, 'Not a lot people know that.'

Yours for Christ's sake.