Festival of St. John the Baptist
No morning wash is more glorious than that of Italy’s rural people on the morning of June 24th. On June 23rd at sunset, eve of the Festa di San Giovanni Battista, women head out into the fields to gather cento erbe (literally,”one hundred greens or plants”, though flowers as well as plants are picked). These will then be soaked all night in a bowl outdoors; they must never enter the house. Keeping the basin out all night assures that the first guazza (dew) will enter the water. My friends and I celebrated with an impromptu dinner, everyone bringing something as a surprise for the others. Our hostess Antonella had prepared the special bowl and also decorated the table with a cornucopia of wild flowers and herbs.
Kindly she gave me some of the special water to bring home so this morning when I got up and went to look around the garden I washed my face with the dew water. Will it make me more beautiful? I doubt it! But it was wonderful to be following a tradition that probably pre-dates St. John, in Lazio we call the night of the 23rd June the night of the ‘Streghe (this translates to witches or maybe better wise women)
Upon rising the next morning, everyone in the family will wash face and hands with the acqua di San Giovanni gloriously perfumed with the wildflowers, leaves, blossoms, seed pods, weeds, and greens which have been soaking all night. Roses, the yellow wild broom, and walnut leaves dominate the fragrance. Washing in this water is purifying and protective. In many families, a ladle of the acqua di San Giovanni is added to everyone’s bath that day, while infants will be washed directly in the basin before the water is used by others.
This tradition is rooted in the solar moment of June 24th, near the summer solstice. On this day, Christianity celebrates the Feast of St. John the Baptist, cousin of Christ, born exactly six months apart. In ancient Rome the fertility festivities in honour of the goddess Fortuna ended on June 24th. Both summer and winter solstices are symbols of passage between the world of space/defined time and the world which is timeless and spaceless, and the tradition of the acqua di San Giovanni certainly has its roots in ancient solstice celebrations.
Adapted from Tuesday’s Italian Notebook.