Featuring Down Under By Karen Tintori
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The June 24 Festa di San Giovanni -- the Feast of St. John the Baptist -- is a holiday celebrated by Italians in numerous cities since pre-Medieval Times. In some cities today, the celebration can last two to three days, with markets, and festivities each day. On the evening of June 23 bonfires are lit, nascent green walnuts are gathered from the trees, and the evening dew is collected in barrels and from the grass since it is believed to be imbued with magical powers. Tied to the Summer Solstice, this feast of a Catholic saint retains numerous pagan underpinnings. The bonfires are a reminder of those lit on the shores of Genoa to welcome St. John's relics to the city in 1098. In ancient days, the harvest of black walnuts while the husk is still tender and green to make a liqueur called Nocino was done by young virgins who climbed the trees, knocking down the nuts and then spreading them across the fields to absorb the evening's magic dew. Quartered the next day, then infused in a bath of alcohol and spices for six months, the green nuts produce a wonderful, rich, dark liqueur. Luckily for me, my son and daughter-in-law have a huge walnut tree in their front yard, and I get to make Nocino from the nuts my grandtwins collect for "Nonnie."
Pagan practices and Catholic traditions meld in this holiday. The night of the 23rd, also tied to the Divine Feminine, is an auspicious night for healers. The water collected from the dew is symbolic of St. John's baptismal waters. The streghe -- the healers, the white witches -- would collect the potent evening dew, adding herbs and other ingredients to make new batches of potions and ointments, leaving these mixtures outside overnight to soak up the energy of the moon. Some of this precious water was infused with flower petals overnight in the belief that washing one's face with the mixture on the morning of the 24th brought good luck and renewed beauty and protection from malocchio -- the evil eye.
Italian proverbs say that anything can happen and everything can be remedied on this night, especially love. St. John's Eve was a time for divination of love by young men and women, who would drop molten lead into cold water and then interpret the hardened shapes left behind. In the alternative, should no lead be available, and you'd like to try this for yourself, you could separate an egg white from its yolk, drop it into a glass of water and leave it on your windowsill overnight on June 23. Bubbles floating at the top the next morning are a sign that you will find a mate who is comely, wealthy and simpatico, or "nice." An image of a church is a good omen, but not one indicating you will get married within the year. No images in the water? Better luck next St. John's Eve.
I love the way the Italians have incorporated the pagan and the Catholic rituals to make unique rituals all their own, and have featured some in my other novels, including the traditional method for determining whether someone has been cursed with the evil eye. The Festa di San Giovanni and the search for the Divine Feminine play a crucial role in my work in progress, a novel titled now as The Goddess of Eden. Anything and everything does happen on this auspicious evening to my protagonist, Lia, as the festival bonfires trigger her to relive a childhood tragedy that changed the trajectory of her life.