Ancient Rome celebrated the goddess of good luck and fortune, ‘Fors Fortuna’ on the 24th June which later morphed into John the Baptist’s birthday, and a night of fire and nuts in more ways than one, especially in small towns like Barisciano.
One tradition on ‘San Giovanni’ is the collection of soft and green walnuts ready to turn into Nocino, a delicate campish digestive that many people describe as monastic. Traditionally the immature nuts must be picked on the 24th before the first dew, in which they are left to be ‘cleansed’; anytime after this in the year and there would be the chance that worms would begin to devour the husk like young shells. Used in multiples of 21 to represent the Trinity & the 7 Virtues, the walnuts are then steeped in alcohol with spices like cloves, cinnamon, juniper and some lemon zest for 40 days to mirror the ‘temptation’ and the time Jesus spent walking in the desert after his baptism by John.
Fires to Heal, Purify and Promote Fertility
Throughout Italy fires are also lit in celebration of the Baptist’s birth that sees farming folklore, pagan and Christian incarnation combined to honour the end of the harvest by burning its chaff together with tree prunings to symbolise healing, purification, and fertility. Dancing round the fire and particularly crossing or jumping the fire showed a boldness & pureness of spirit which later became more of a macho proclamation on the jumper’s manhood, as well as supposed magical healing cures for back-pain to eyesight.
Such fire rites are rare now in Abruzzo, fires are still lit but jumping the flames is uncommon, however; one small L’Aquila town does still do this, Barisciano, just below the fabled Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Before jumping, those taking part go to the town’s former wash-house and follow millennial tradition of dousing themselves with water as a symbol of repentance before they run, spring and close their eyes as they leap through the purging flames that are courted and drawn by a violinist – yep a lot of ‘nuts’ required to do that, you could see why it became such a sign of virility… that is the thought anyway until we saw boys under the age of 10 began doing the same! From initial heart racing and thoughts of “health and safety, boys” you relax at the contagious whoops as proud parents look on. There is an awful lot more trust of children here than back in the UK!