The same sorry scene repeats itself 364 days a year at my house. My children do not want to bathe. They beg, they plead, they cry, they bargain. They act as if they are being denied a basic human right to choose filth. (For any scientists out there still searching for the missing link between the animal kingdom and homo erectus, I’m here to tell you that it is little boys. Roughly between the ages of 3 and 30.) But one day a year, that magical 365th day, they literally can’t wait to hop in the tub– the feast day of John the Baptist. For this reason alone I would have voted for his canonization.
The feast day of John the Baptist—La Festa di San Giovanni Battista—falls on June 24th, and on the eve of this holy day we spend an hour walking the fields and meadows around our house along with our Umbrian neighbors gathering petals of wildflowers, snippets of herbs, and scented leaves (tradition holds that there should be one hundred varieties gathered, but we start to fudge our numbers about an hour into the project) which we then soak in water in a small tub overnight to prepare the traditional acqua di San Giovanni. Our assortment includes flowers in season (broom, rose, lavender, chamomile), herbs from our garden (rosemary, mint, thyme, sage), and aromatic plants along the country roads (bay, walnut, wild fennel).
The important ingredient–and the one which often seems to be the most wily, almost always involving wading through thorny brambles in shorts to get at it–is, of course, l’erba di San Giovanni or St. John’s Wort.
The soaking flowers and herbs are left outside during the entire night preceding the feast day for two important reasons. First, tradition holds that during the night the Madonna and Saint John pass to leave their benediction on the profumed water, the power of which can stay curses, envy, and harmful charms—especially those directed towards children—and ward off demons and witches. And, second, it is imperitive that the infusion be moistened by the first dew the next morning. The guazza, or dew, which settles during the night of Saint John has long been thought to have mystical powers. Surely tied to ancient pagan beliefs surrounding the summer solstice and the increased potency of the four elements (earth, wind, fire and water) during that night, even today you hear the aforism: La guazza di Santo Gioanno fa guarì da ogni malanno or “St. John’s dew cures all ills”.
There are numerous traditions tied to the supposed powers of St. John’s dew, which represents the tears of Salome crying over the death of John the Baptist. In various parts of Italy cloths were once laid out overnight to soak up the dew, which was then wrung out and used for its curative powers. It is also said that there is no better night to make a wish than the night of St. John…you simply have to sleep outdoors with an object which symbolizes your heart’s desire. The object will be moistened by the dew come morning, and your wish is sure to come true.
And so, the morning of the 24th, we all gather around our small basin of profumed acqua di San Giovanni. I go first, rinsing my face and hands (sure, I may not be a believer, but the powers of the water are supposed to be especially beneficial to the skin and anything that can stave off wrinkles is worth a go, in my book). Then the rest is poured into the tub and mixed with warm water from the tap and my sons hop in, happily splashing each other, tossing petals on the floor, and generally making a big mess.
But they come out smelling of flowers and herbs, tradition and belief, blessings and health. And the fact that there was no kicking and screaming about washing is proof enough that l’acqua di San Giovanni works miracles!