Today is the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist whose birthday was set as June 24 by the medieval church so as to be six months prior to the birth of Jesus (conforming to the description in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke). This is a rare example of a feast day celebrating the birth of the saint rather than the death. Just as Christmas coincides roughly with the northern winter solstice, so St John’s Day falls near the northern summer solstice. Both celebrations occur slightly after the actual solstice because in ancient times observers needed to be certain that the sun had indeed reversed its course. Both Christian festivals have adopted solstice customs that pre-date Christianity. Sometimes I struggle with the collection of information to disseminate for my daily posts. Today the problem is reversed: how do I whittle down all the St John’s Eve traditions from across the Christian cultures of the world to give you something of the spirit of the festival without writing a book? Here’s the bare bones. I urge you to look up the customs that are particular to your part of the world. Unlike those of Christmas, St John’s Eve traditions are slowly fading.
St John’s Eve has something of the quality of Halloween. In many cultures it is believed that various forms of spirit roam the earth on this night. In latter centuries these spirits came to be classified as evil, but the anthropologist in me suspects that at one time they were not deemed evil necessarily but, rather, spirits (such as those of dead forebears) that just did not belong in the world of the living and so needed to be kept away from villages and towns. One almost universal practice to keep the spirits away was to light huge midnight bonfires, often on the highest point in the area. In some cultures people leapt over the fires to purify themselves. They could also be used for cooking.
Fairies and witches
Through much of the recorded history of St John’s Eve, malevolent spirits have been associated with witches (much to the distaste of modern Wiccans). Witches were believed to be especially active this night, and had to be protected against. The custom, now quite common in Scandinavia, of burning an effigy of a witch atop the local bonfire is, however, a twentieth century innovation. But not all of the supernatural creatures abroad this night were evil (although mostly should be avoided). On the Isle of Man in the British Isles, it was said that at one time the king of the fairies, Mannanan and his queen, Fand, led a procession of the lords and ladies of the island to the High Court at Tynwald, where they passed the night away in dance and song led by fairy music. The following day the old laws of the island were read aloud to the gathered population. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its plot of the intertwining of the lives of humans and fairies, is actually set on St John’s Eve (which was, and is, quite commonly referred to as Midsummer Night).
Although fire is the great purifying element of this festival, there are water customs too, especially in eastern Europe. In Poland girls weave garlands of flowers and herbs, set lighted candles in the center, and set them afloat in flowing streams. If the garland is caught in weeds the girl will have no luck in love that year. But if it floats downstream it will be gathered up by a boy who will be her love. Nowadays in some towns boys stand in the streams ready to catch the garlands. In the early twentieth century some villages held mock weddings for the boys and girls who had become “engaged” by this custom. In Russia there were similar customs except the girls tossed the garlands into the tide by the sea shore, and on the southern coast of Spain women bathe in the ocean. St John’s Day is still considered a lucky day on which to hold a (real) wedding.
Across all of Europe it is still traditional to gather medicinal herbs on this night in the belief that they will have special powers. Naturally, St John’s Wort is the most commonly collected where it is available (which is quite widespread because it has become invasive in many parts of Europe). Also gathered, depending on the region, are fennel, different species of fern, rue, rosemary, dog rose, lemon verbena, laburnum, foxglove, and elderflower. In some places these gathered herbs are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways to ward away evil through the year. In others, they are dipped in a vessel filled with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.
As I write (dawn in Buenos Aires), drummers and wooden flute players with flaming torches are parading through the streets of my neighboring barrio, and I just saw a woman throwing ashes from her balcony. Village processions were once common on this night, usually in the form of house to house visits, with an accompanying song as the people walked the streets. In northern Europe householders would have food and drink (commonly bread, cheese, and beer) waiting for the revelers.
Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” was originally titled “St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain,” based on Russian folk tales. The original was never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime and was not published until 1968. The concert version we all know (made famous, or infamous, by Disney in “Fantasia”), is actually a re-scoring of Mussorgsky’s original by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. There are hints that Mussorgsky had plans for a 3-act opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “St John’s Eve,” but it never materialized.
Which St John’s Eve recipe shall I choose? There are so many. Do you want Swedish salmon, Mexican tamales, Finnish pancakes, Latvian fresh cheese . . .? In the end I settled on this pasta dish from Brindisi in the Apulia region of Italy off the Adriatic coast. The recipe is adapted from one by Mario Batali. He calls for whole salted anchovies which are best. If you cannot find them use tinned anchovies. You’ll need about 8 to 10 (or as many as suit your tastes). The pasta recommended in the recipe (lasagnette or pappardelle) are broad noodles. Fettuccini will work fine.
St. John’s Eve Pasta
¾ cup (120 g) sliced blanched almonds
2 cups (300 g) fresh bread crumbs
4 salt-packed anchovies, filleted, rinsed, and chopped (or 8 tinned fillets chopped)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 ½ cups (3.5 dl) tomato sauce
6-8 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
1 pound (.5 kg) lasagnette or pappardele pasta (or any broad noodles)
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil
While the water is coming to the boil, add a small amount of olive oil to a sauté pan (enough to generously coat the pan), and gently toast the almonds over medium heat until golden brown.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the almonds to a plate. In the oil remaining in the pan, toast the bread crumbs, stirring, until golden brown and crisp. Combine the bread crumbs and almonds in a small bowl.
Add more olive oil to the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the anchovies and crush them into the oil with a fork. Add the anchovies and oil to the bread crumb mixture and season with black pepper. Set aside.
Add more olive oil to the pan. Add the onion and garlic, and cook gently until softened but not browned. Add the tomato sauce to the onions and garlic, bring it to a brisk simmer, and cook until the sauce has reduced by one-third. Add the basil, remove from the heat, and set aside.
Drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook until just al dente. Drain the pasta well, and toss it into the pan with the sauce. Add half of the bread crumb mixture and toss to mix well.
Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl. Sprinkle the remaining bread crumb mixture over the top, and serve immediately.