When my better half and I were on holiday in Cannes this year, after dinner we went back to our hotel room to sit on the balcony and enjoy what was going on below at street level as well as above in the sky.

On June 18, 2015, we saw something neither of us had ever witnessed: a disappearing new moon.

That day, incidentally, marked the beginning of Ramadan for some Muslims. As is true for Jews, certain feast days begin in one 24-hour period or the next, the Last Supper being one example. In any event, these periods of religious fasts or feasts are dictated by the moon’s movement.

Anyway, we sat watching the moon. I thought I was seeing things when, within five minutes, the crescent began approaching the horizon. Cautiously, I asked SpouseMouse who said, ‘It’s definitely going downward.’ Within another five minutes the moon was no longer visible.

Watch for the moon to move up past the bright planets Venus and Jupiter - and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo the Lion - from about June 19-21.I tried taking pictures but our camera just wasn’t powerful enough to capture this phenomenon. The other interesting thing was seeing Regulus, Jupiter and Venus in all this. Keep Talking Greece has an explanation as well as a graphic (reproduced at left) from EarthSky.org:

the night sky has to offer an amazing cosmic show. From June 19th to June 21st, the crescent Moon is playing games with Venus and Jupiter offering stargazers a once in a lifetime experience.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac observed that, between June 19 and 20, 2015, the crescent moon joined Venus and Jupiter.

We suspected that the further south one was in the Northern Hemisphere, the better the visuals. This phenomenon is a dark moon, different to a blue moon.

SpouseMouse said, ‘It’s not surprising that so many cultures took a great interest in nature and the skies. What else was there to do?’

MoonConnection has a great illustration of the phases for June 2015. Entirely normal but fascinating nonetheless.

Stones of Wonder explains what the moon in its various cycles must have meant to our ancestors so long ago (emphases mine):

The most important is probably that the twelve or thirteen full moons over the course of the year do not rise and set in the same positions on the horizon. The full moons in summer rise and set much further to the south compared with those in winter. This means that the full moons of summer are in the sky for a shorter period than those of winter, and reach a lower altitude in the sky. From the perspective of a pre-technological society, it would seem very lucky that the winter full moons rose earlier and set later, providing light through the long winter nights just when it was needed most. In fact, it probably seemed miraculous. The full moon nearest to midwinter is always the highest and longest shining full moon of the year, and everyone has experienced bright moonlit frosty nights around the winter holiday.

Once this seasonal difference in the full moons had been noticed, a further fact would probably have been observed as well, as the years passed. This is that from year to year the rising and setting positions of these winter and summer solstice moons themselves change. The change from one winter solstice or summer solstice to its equivalent a year later is about 3°. (This is the same as the width of six moon diameters, and the change would be plain to any careful observer.) This is the most obvious way in which the other cycle of the moon’s movement reveals itself. The moon goes through a cycle of horizon positions which repeats itself every 18.6 years. Fundamentally, the cycle is of a widening and narrowing band of rising and setting positions which the moon at any phase can attain. At one extreme point of the cycle, called the ‘major standstill’ (following Alexander Thom), the moon will rise and set far to the north, well beyond the position of the sun at the summer solstice. Two weeks later, the moon will be rising and setting far to the south, only appearing in the sky for a very short period.

I can understand why early Doctors of the Church transformed events such as Summer Solstice into religious feasts.

Regarding Summer Solstice, Crystal Links tells us that Saint Eligius, who lived in the 7th century:

warned the recently-Christianized inhabitants of Flanders against these pagan solstitial celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he would say:

No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, Mid-Summer has been Christianized as the feast of Saint John the Baptist: notably, unlike all other saints’ days, this feast is celebrated on his birthday and not on the day of his martyrdom, which is separately observed as the “Decollation of John the Baptist” on 29 August. That more conventional day of Saint John the Baptist is not marked by Christian churches with the emphasis one might otherwise expect of such an important saint.

As for his solsticial birthday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24) as a Solemnity, which is the highest degree a liturgical feast can have. It is even one of the few saint’s feasts that is celebrated even when it falls on a Sunday; typically the feast of a saint is superseded when it falls on a Sunday. There is hardly any way that the feast of St John the Baptist could be given more emphasis in the liturgical calendar.

The celebration of Midsummer’s Eve was from ancient times linked to the summer solstice. People believed that mid-summer plants had miraculous and healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other evil powers.

In Sweden Mid-summer celebration originates from the time before Christianity; it was celebrated as a sacrifice time in the sign of the fertility.

The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, Midsummer’s Eve is considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.

Secular celebrations still take place on Midsummer’s Eve. A former employer of mine in England held a dinner-dance on or around June 21.

In France, a feast and a bonfire are still part of the celebrations held on June 24 rather than the day of the Solstice itself. An excellent site on the best of the Bordeaux region, My French Heaven, described the events in 2015 accompanied by marvellous photographs:

On or around the date of the Summer Solstice, every year, in the French countryside, villagers light up a big fire in a field and dance around it until the last flame has gone. We call this « Fête de la Saint Jean » or « Saint John’s Feast” in reference to Saint John the Baptiste. But the Christians actually hijacked this tradition. It was originally a pagan rite meant to celebrate the sun.

Is it wrong that clergy turned pagan rituals into Christian feast days? Personally, I do not think so.

Is it wrong that we still regard the skies and seasons in a state of wonder and celebration? Not as long as, in doing so, we marvel at what is God’s creation.

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