St. John and his Eve
June 23rd brings us St. John Eve, one of the most important religious days in New Orleans Vodou. While most Saints feast days are celebrated on their date of death, St. John’s is celebrated on his birthday. He is one of only two saints, the Virgin Mary being the other one, whose birthday is an official religious celebration. The Church also celebrates his death but, fortunately, his birth coincides with a major pagan holiday. This worked out well for the Church and their proclivity for synchronization. That pagan holiday is the summer solstice, also called Midsumer, or Litha.
Yup, summer is already in full swing. This year the summer solstice will fall on June 21st, 2021. This is the longest day of the year. Midsummer is the moment the scales start tipping back and we begin our progression back to the darkness of winter. For our Southern Hemisphere friends this is the winter solstice, the moment their scales begin tipping back towards the light of summer.
Back to St. John
The John we are referring to here is John the Baptist, not John the Apostle. John the Baptist is a religious powerhouse in his own right. Known as the precursor of Jesus, he is also venerated as a prophet in Islam. He was even mentioned in Roman history as being a member of a semi-ascetic Judaic sect, the Essenes. The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to be the Essenes library. The Essenes believed in a coming messiah, and in the ritual of baptism as a way to gain forgiveness for sins. Think of it as a form of rebirth.
Reportedly John the Baptist is the man who baptised Jesus. They were also cousins. Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother were cousins. In life, John the Baptist was regarded as a good man, and well respected. John The Baptist led a very ascetic lifestyle. He was poor and lived out in the wilderness. As somewhat of a recluse, he’s not one to be accused of being the life of a party. He was wildly popular in his time, however, having thousands of followers. His teachings were of an apocalyptic nature, predicting a coming messiah and that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
He was born in the late 1st century BC, and died anywhere from 28-36 AD. The only thing we know for certain about his death was that he was executed by Herod Antipas (who was not a King). There are different accounts as to the specifics, and the why, and all of the politics involved, but the end result is the same. Most accounts state he was beheaded.
St John, the Summer Solstice and Voodoo
So what does Saint John, Jesus's cousin, have to do with Vodou? Well, there’s a couple of things. First of all, Vodou is a very adaptable religion. It is an oral tradition that remains very fluid. When practitioners of Vodou encounter something they respect, or admire, or see value in, they often adopt it into their own religion. Most American Vodou loa come from West Africa, around Benin. Spirits from other traditions, however, have been taken in and honored as loa as well. Think of it as a chosen family scenario. One example is Maman Brigitte, who hails from Ireland, originally being the Celtic goddess Brigid. (She was also adopted by Christianity as St. Brigid.) In New Orleans Vodou, there have even been two living people taken on as loa. These, of course, are Dr. John, and Marie Laveau. From Christianity Voudon have adopted the Archangel Michael, Jude the Apostle, and John the Baptist. Yup, practitioners of Vodou venerate St. John.
The other way St. John is involved with vodou is the summer solstice synchronization. Vodou is an earth religion, and like other earth religions hold the summer solstice as a very important event. As a turning point, the summer solstice is the time of rebirth and renewal. During the early 1800’s in New Orleans, the Haitian revolution was still very fresh in people’s minds. The New Orleans elite feared the same thing could happen to them. This meant that any gathering by black city residents was prohibited via city ordinance. Certainly African or Vodu religious celebrations were a big no no. In 1830 Marie Laveau used her political power and a little creativity to bring a summer solstice celebration to the people of New Orleans. This, of course, is St. John’s Eve.
In New Orleans, since Vodou ceremonies and celebrations were forced into the shadows, Vodou gained a falsely evil reputation. As with most excuses to celebrate in New Orleans, St John’s Eve turned out to be wildly popular. Reportedly there would be thousands in attendance on the shores of Bayou St. John (highly appropriate) for St. John’s Eve. Marie Laveau did not discriminate against who could attend this festival. She welcomed everyone, black, white, poor, or rich, in hopes that the uninitiated would see Vodou and come to see it not as an evil practice.
Marie Laveau was known as the Vodou Queen of New Orleans and yet was regarded as a devout woman of service in her community. The people in New Orleans society knew who she was, and the fact that she was allowed to hold such a gathering is a testament to her social and political power. Of course, she wasn’t overly cavalier about the whole thing. This event occurred on the Eve of St. John, and was declared as a St. John’s Eve celebration. This is another case of Vodou celebrations hiding behind a Catholic mask, even if it was a paper thin one.
In Vodou the Eve of St. John is mainly a head washing ceremony. The head-washing ceremony is exactly what it sounds like. This is similar to a baptism, as it is a time to refocus and experience rebirth. It is believed that on the summer solstice the veil between worlds is very thin. The ancestors and spirits are very accessible. Many people use this as a time to get closer to their spirituality and re-dedicate themselves to their higher purpose. This is in line with many summer solstice ceremonies from all over the world.
To this day, one of the most venerated spirits at the Eve of St. John celebrations is Marie Laveau. Practitioners are asked to wear white, including a white head scarf and bring an offering to Marie Laveau. Marie Laveau is the one who made this ceremony so public to help bring Vodou out of the shadows and into the light. She brought the ceremony to the city of New Orleans June 23, 1830 and she died June 16th, 1881. One week shy of the ceremony's 51st anniversary.
For Vodou, St. John’s Eve is a summer solstice festival. On the summer solstice the veil between worlds is thought to be very thin. Celebrations are designed to capitalize on this and bring people closer to spirit. It is an ideal time to commune with ancestors. St John’s Eve is no different for Vodou. Marie Laveau also used this as an opportunity to include everyone in the city in the festivities. News accounts at the time declared it to not be unlike a jazz fest. One year she had over 12,ooo attendees. Her goal was to show the general population that Vodou is not evil. Practitioners should be allowed to have their ceremonies publicly. To this very day they do!