The days surrounding the summer solstice abound with legends, divinations and rituals involving water, plants, and fire. Throughout mostly rural areas of Europe, the night between June 23 and June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist (his nativity) is marked by festivals and bonfires, flaming wheels rolling down mountainsides, ritualistic smoke purification of livestock, the burning of aromatic herbs to ward off evil and promote physical health, and more. Perhaps no day on the calendar juxtaposes ancient pagan rites with Catholic tradition as beguilingly as June 24, as both a Church feast day and the day on which Midsummer is observed. Here in Italy, at the center of this heady concoction of symbolism and ritual, witches and fairies, nature spirits and Christian saints, herbal remedies, purifying ablutions, potions and even the malocchio, is the curious secular tradition of gathering still-green walnuts to make the liquor known as nocino.
On the eve of St John, herbs are believed to possess especially strong healing powers (many aromatics are, in fact, harvested this time of year, having just flowered, with aromas at their most intense—surely no coincidence). Herbs and aromatics to gather on St John’s eve include St John’s wort (obviously), wormwood, verbena/vervain, elderberry, lavender, mint, rosemary, garlic and onion. Even fruits such as red currant and hawthorn berries are believed to protect against evil, if gathered on this day.
Some of these plants, when used in the preparation of a special brew known as l’acqua di San Giovanni, or St John’s water or dew, are thought to bring not only physical benefits but also spiritual salvation and protection bestowed from the saint himself—but only if you follow a peculiar and precise ritual: the water is made by placing lavender leaves and flowers, St John’s wort, calamint/nepeta, rue/ruta, rosemary and more (too many variations to list, in truth) in a basin full of water, which is then left overnight, outside the house, to absorb the curative and protective powers transmitted via the saint, or the dew, or the moonlight, or the heightened cosmic forces, generally. The following morning, women who wash with this water will improve their looks and ward off disease (who knew!?). Variations result in different apotropaic qualities; the addition of wormwood, for instance, will protect against the evil eye.
One similar custom involves gathering dew directly from trees and plants on this night, with the resulting distillation purported to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and keep illness at bay; while another version, perhaps devised for the lazier among us, calls for leaving a cloth out overnight, the moisture from which is then wrung out in the morning. Even more practical (this is the method I’d use) is simply placing a glass in a hole in the ground and letting the precious St John’s dew drizzle in, which, again, seems designed for the less industrious types, yet in its simplicity suggests something rather fascinating: that even without the addition of herbs and flowers, any dew gathered on this morning contains magical properties.
Many St John-related rituals center on mating, nuptials, and marital harmony, given this night’s age-old association with male-female balance and harmony. In one version, a young, yet-to-wed woman places three fava beans—one intact, one peeled, and one broken—under her pillow before going to sleep on June 23. During the night she selects one without looking and learns her fate: the intact bean signifies riches, a good match; the half bean portends a mediocre destiny; and the peeled bean, a bad omen altogether. In another, the eating of snails, specifically their tentacles, on St John’s day grants men protection from misfortune and in particular from being made a cuckold: the snail tentacle, which resembles a horn, le corna, represents a kind of edible amulet against what’s known in Italian as mettere le corna, a not-so-nice idiom for infidelity.
Of all today’s quirky traditions, the gathering of walnuts to make nocino, also considered therapeutic, is likely the most familiar (and observed) in Italy. But it’s not without its own offbeat backstory. A centuries-old legend maintains that witches would gather on this night around an ancient walnut tree in Benevento; in fact, one interpretation of these many rituals meant to protect and ward off evil forces relates to this tale—that on this night so rife with other-worldly influence, one was particularly susceptible to acts of witchery and must take protective measures against those journeying to the coven in Benevento. (St John’s Eve is also commonly referred to as La Notte delle Streghe, or Night of the Witches). Moreover, walnuts have long been linked to both medicinal and magical practices, going back to the Druids. To make a proper nocino, the unripe fruits, thus imbued with healing powers, must be picked—you guessed it—on this and only this night, by a virgin maiden, barefoot and dressed in white, using only her hands or wooden tools. She must climb the walnut tree after the moon rises to gather an uneven number of fruits.
Interested? Check out Judy Witts Francini’s recipe for nocino.