It’s the day of Saint John tomorrow and there is some magic in the air.
Saint John, San Giovanni in Italian, is the patron saint of many big and small Italian towns and this makes it a very special day. The day of the patron saint is a public holiday in Italy and this means that tomorrow many people will be taking a day off if the town where they work celebrates its patron saint.
But this is a special time not only because many people can enjoy a holiday right at the beginning of summer but also because there are a lot of very special celebrations related to it. It is a religious holiday but there are many traditions that have their roots in pagan times and it’s all very fascinating.
As I said, it is mainly a religious holiday, which celebrates Saint John The Baptist, who got this name because of his role in preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah. Other than Jesus and his mother Mary, John is the only saint whose birthday is celebrated within the church’s liturgical year, on June 24th.
Saint John is the patron saint of three very important Italian cities: Genoa, Turin, and Florence. Each city has its own peculiar way of celebrating this moment. In Genoa, it is a very important day because the ashes of Saint John are kept in a chapel of the city cathedral, there are many churches dedicated to Saint John and he is a very special saint for a lot of people in the city.
Since the feast of Saint John combines religious and pagan traits, the celebrations in Genoa begin on the eve of Saint John’s day: there are a lot of parties and events around the city center waiting for the big fire that takes place at midnight in Piazza Matteotti, right in the heart of town. On the 24th, instead, there is a solemn procession that goes from the cathedral to the port, where the city and its inhabitants are blessed by the Archbishop with the ashes of Saint John.
The celebrations in Turin begin on the 23rd with a historic parade along the streets of the city center and a big fire, called farò, in Piazza Castello, one of the main squares in the city, and the feast ends on the night of the 24th with fireworks. The main events in Florence are a mass and a procession in the city cathedral, the final game of the infamous calcio fiorentino in Piazza Santa Croce, and the fochi, the fireworks that will take place on the night of the 24th.
These are just the celebrations in three big Italian cities but there are events in many other Italian locations. If you happen to be in Italy around June 24th, it is absolutely worth checking if there are events in the area where you are staying because the feast of Saint John is a very important time and you might be able to enjoy some really special feasts.
As you may have noticed, fire is a very important element in the celebration of Saint John and this tradition has pagan roots. It is closely related to the celebrations for the summer solstice when the lighting of fires was a way to give more strength to the sun, which is supposed to become weaker after its peak on the solstice. Also, the fire had a purifying effect on the people who attended the celebrations.
There is also a number of myths and beliefs related to this moment of the year. One of the most popular ones is that of the acqua di San Giovanni (Saint John’s water): the tradition says that you should go out on the eve of Saint John’s and pick some wild herbs and flowers, which you should put in a bowl with water and let them rest outside during the night. On the morning of Saint John’s day, you should use this water to wash your face as a way to bring renovation and good luck.
Another popular tradition is that of the barca di San Giovanni (Saint John’s boat): fill a bowl with water, add an egg white and leave the bowl outside on the eve of Saint John’s day. The morning after, you will find a formation that resembles a boat and, judging from the position of its sails, you’ll know how the year will go. (Here are some pictures, so that you can see the results of this process for yourselves).
Other traditions are preparing an oil with the hypericum flowers picked on Saint John’s day or preparing nocino, a liquor made with walnuts gathered on the same day, placing three fava beans under the pillow to know how rich your future husband might be, or hanging the garlic of Saint John outside the front door to protect the house against witches.
All these things make the feast of Saint John in Italy a truly magical time, which marks the real beginning of summer – even if summer begins way earlier if you just look at the weather. By the way, if you want to read more about summer in Italy, maybe you could check a post I wrote last year about this very special season!
Has this time of the year a special meaning in your country? Are there unique traditions related to it? I’d love to know!
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