Better Know A Holiday: St. John’s Day (And Eve)

Witch burning on St. John's Day
f_jensen_at_sdr.vinge, Flickr

AKA: Fete Nationale du Quebec (Canada), Kupala Day (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland), Festa Junina (Brazil), Foguera de San Xuan (Brazil), Jaanilaupaev (Estonia), Saint Jonas’ Festival (Lithuania), Jani (Latvia), Dia de Sao Joao (Portugal), Sant Joan (Spain), Johnsmas Foy (Scotland)

When? June 23 (Eve) and 24 (Day)

Public holiday in: Quebec, Canada; Turin, Italy; Catalonia, Spain; Estonia; Latvia; Lithuania; Porto, Portugal

Who died? St. John the Baptist. June 24 is his feast day.

What’s a feast day? Certain Christian traditions, notably Roman Catholic, keep track of which liturgies are given when by way of something called the General Roman Calendar, or Universal Calendar of Saints. Around 60 percent of the days of the Gregorian calendar year are associated with one or more saints, martyrs or holy figures. Even some relics have feast days. The feast day for St. Peter’s chair is on February 22. St. John the Baptist’s feast day falls on June 24.

Interestingly, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, lost his feast day back in 1969. A lot of people think St. Christopher was “desanctified,” or lost his sainthood, but in fact he was just stripped of his feast day because there’s no proof he actually existed.

Also interestingly, the patron saint of travelers is also the patron saint of bachelors and bookbinders, among other things.

You were saying about St. John the Baptist… Right.

So why June 24 of all days? That’s when John the Baptist is said to have been born. But more than that, Christianity has a long tradition of co-opting pagan rituals into Christian holidays. It’s a good way to gain converts. Pagan celebrations generally aligned with the turning of the seasons – equinoxes and solstices. And so Christians have major holidays around these dates: Easter near the vernal equinox, Christmas near the winter solstice and Michaelmas, which celebrates Lucifer being cast out from heaven, near the autumnal equinox.That June 24 is close to the summer solstice is certainly not a coincidence. Even if the summer solstice used to be celebrated on a different date (which it was when we used the Julian calendar), the church would have had a significant feast day to coincide with such a major celebration in the northern hemisphere.

Is that why it’s particularly popular in northern Europe? Bingo, mysterious person. St. John’s Day is celebrated all over the world, but the biggest celebrations occur in traditionally Christian nations well above the equator. In strongly Christian countries like Ecuador, where there is little change in sunrise and sunset throughout the year, it’s not such a big deal. But in Tallinn, Estonia, the sun sets at about 10:45 p.m. on the summer solstice and 3:30 p.m. on the winter solstice. St. John’s Day is just an extension of the reverence these places have for the summer solstice.

But isn’t it celebrated in Brazil? Yes, and other places where colonial powers instilled their traditions. Joao Fernandes, an early Portuguese explorer, was particularly devoted to the holiday and took John the Baptist as the patron saint of his exploits at Pernambuco, which is where St. John’s day is celebrated most in Brazil today. Fernandes had canons fire salutes around the camp all day long in celebration. This was in no small part because he shared the same name with the saint.

John the Baptist is also the patron saint of French Canada. And Turin, Italy and Porto, Portugal and numerous other places as well. That’s why Quebec celebrates June 24 as its national day.

Fete Nationale du Quebec
abdallahh, Flickr

Is it celebrated the same everywhere? Not quite, though most celebrations share one thing in common: fire. If there’s one thing everyone does on St. John’s Eve, it’s get rid of their old furniture and spare kindling in a giant bonfire. Or if you’re in Shetland, Scotland, where wood is in short supply, your excess heather and peat.

The city of Poznan in Poland had a unique take on the fire tradition in 2012, when they released 8,000 Chinese lanterns into the sky on St. John’s Night, setting a world record in the process.

Bonfires are more typical and are found everywhere, from prominent mountain peaks to valleys and plains. If you’re a traditional fisherman from Brittany, France…

I’m not. Well, if you were, you’d even light a fire on top of your ship’s mainmast to celebrate with your fishing fleet. Curiously, Breton fisherman are said to have a fear of tailors, another group that John the Baptist patronizes.

Elsewhere, the celebrations have unique local flavor. In Scandinavia, figures of witches are added to the flames because, as on Halloween, demons and evil spirits are said to be able to roam freely this day. Up until the 1700s, the French would incinerate cats by the sackful and chase a flaming cat through the streets, evil incarnate as they were (the cats, not the French… ostensibly).

Latvians eat a special cheese flavored with caraway seeds. Ukrainians eat eggs, dumplings and liquor for dinner. Ukrainians will also symbolically wash themselves with the morning dew after watching the sun rise, as do the Lithuanians.

Girls celebrating Jani in Latvia
Dace Kiršpile, Flickr

The Irish and others will set a wagon wheel on fire and roll it down a hill to symbolize the sun’s decline. With any luck, there’s nothing flammable at the bottom. Many cultures will dress in traditional costumes. Russians douse each other with water in one of the few actual nods to John the Baptist. The Swedes, celebrating their Midsommar festival a few days before St. John’s Day, raise a giant pole that is supposed to imbue the earth with fertile soil.

Sounds phallic. Indeed. In fact, most rites and rituals surrounding the summer solstice have to do with fertility. Many of the cultures celebrating St. John’s incorporate dancing and singing erotic songs into the celebrations, much to the consternation of the Church, I expect. It’s said to be a good time to predict who will be your future spouse, as well.

No need. Well, another common activity is jumping through the flames. It’s said to cleanse and purify the soul. Or you could wear a garland of flowers.

Not really for me, either. Can I just see some photos? Sure. Check out a slideshow of St. John’s Day (and Night) celebrations from around the world below.

Check out more holidays around the world here.

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From Ankle To Arch: Italy’s Culinary Diversity

Go to your local supermarket to buy pasta and you’ll find about a dozen different shapes from which to choose. Travel from the ankle to the arch of the heel in Italy, though, and you’ll find 150 different types. And those are just the pasta types that begin with the letter “C.”


Each of Italy’s 20 regions has a distinct cuisine. Pizza crust thickens and thins. Ingredients go in and out of certain sauces. Meat is cooked in entirely different ways. On the island of Pantelleria, for example, you’ll find as much couscous on the menu of an Italian restaurant as you will pasta. In Sicily bread crumbs are an actual sauce you’ll find in pasta. In Valle d’Aosta, in the Alpine north, you’ll find fondue made with fontina cheese. Culinary diversity is one of the wonders of travel. And Italy is one of the best places to discover new food.

You thought you knew Italian cuisine? Not until you’ve traveled from Torino to Taranto. Here’s a quick guide to some of Italy’s best regional cuisine.


Piedmont
A Slow Approach
It’s no coincidence the world headquarters for the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the use of local and organic ingredients, is based in this region in northwest Italy. Thanks to its location near the Alps, Piedmont’s capital, Turin, as well as the countryside is awash in mushrooms and truffles. Which is why one of the most local dishes in the region is tagliolini with white truffles, a nutmeg-accented pasta dish that is both earthy and satisfying. Wash it down with a glass of Barolo, Piedmont’s best known beverages and one of Italy’s most acclaimed wines.

Lombardy
More than Milan
The most famous dish to come out of this northern region is the breaded veal or chicken cutlet a la Milanese (which later influenced the advent of Wiener schnitzel, by the way). But Lombardy’s cuisine offers so much more. Risotto and polenta, for example, are more prevalent here than pasta and butter and cream-an influence from northern Europe-are just as popular as olive oil. The region’s capital, Milan, is an optimal place to sample the regional cuisine, but for lesser known specialties head south to the town of Pavia, surrounded by rice patties, for risotto rusti: rice with pork and beans.

Veneto
The taste of La Serenissima
Hugging the Adriatic sea in northeastern Italy, Veneto is-surprise, surprise-a feast for seafood lovers. Dried cod stewed in milk might not sound too delizia, but try it and we trust you’ll be won over. For true carnivores the fegato alla Veneziana –calf’s liver and onions-is a true taste of Venice. Like Lombardy, one of this region’s neighbors to the west, rice is more prevalent than pasta. The area around inland Treviso is famous for its soft, bubbly prosecco, be sure to indulge in a glass.

Emilia-Romagna
Porky Goodness
If there’s a gastronomic epicenter to a country that is already brimming with mouth-watering food, Emilia-Romagna is it. The region’s fertile land means it produces some of the country’s best dishes. The streets of towns like Bologna and Parma are teeming with porkliscious goodness (prosciutto, anyone?) as well as local staples like freshly made tagliatelle and lasagna. Don’t forget to try some Parmagiano in its hometown, Parma.

Tuscany
Under the Tuscan Tongue
Perhaps no other region of Italy has a more romanticized cuisine than that of Tuscany. Geography has played a heavy role in shaping the cuisine, which is earthy, simple, and seasonal: from olive oil to pecorino cheese to spices like rosemary and sage. Panzanella, a bread soup, is a traditional Tuscan dish. So are various bean soups. And, of course, one cannot forget the tender steaks the region produces (the Chianina cow from the sub-region Chianti is a legend among meat eaters). Wash it all down with the king of Italian wines, Brunello di Montalcino, which hails from Montalcino in souther Tuscany.

Umbria
The Green Heart
Known as Italy’s “green heart” for its fertile landscape, Umbria is a foodie paradise. The gorgeous hill-top towns are a feast for the eyes, but there’s plenty for the taste buds as well. Perugia is famous for chocolate and Orvieto for its many Slow Food restaurants (such as Trattoria dell’Orso or La Grotta), but be sure to check out off-the-radar Norcia, where sausage is king. For something less meaty, try the Umbrian dish falchetti verdi: ricotta gnocchi and spinach baked with cheese and tomato sauce.

Lazio
Eternally Delicious
With Rome at its axis, this region is a culinary world all its own. Famous dishes that hail from Lazio include the egg-and-pancetta-laced pasta carbonara, tomato-and-pancetta-based spaghetti amatriciana, and the spicy pasta arabiata. Many of Rome’s dishes were created in the district of Testaccio, home of an ancient slaughterhouse where workers were often paid with the “quinto quarto,” or fifth part of the animal. Only the brave should sample real Roman dishes like pajata, veal intestines with the mother’s milk still inside.

Campania
Tomatoes and Buffalos
Naples is the heart of this southern region’s cuisine, and for good reason. It’s here where locals put their famous tomatoes, San Marzano, and mouth-watering buffalo milk cheese, mozzarella di buffalo, to good use: they’re the main ingredients for the world’s best pizza, invented here in the 16th century. Lesser known treats such as bistecca alla pizzaiola, a thinly sliced beef topped with garlic and tomato sauce, are also worth the trek.

Puglia
The Pull of Puglia
Situated in the heel of the boot, the sparse olive-tree spiked landscape of Puglia has inspired a unique cuisine. And so has the region’s historic poverty. Pasta is made without eggs and the shapes are unique. Orecchiette, or “little ears,” originated here. Puglia gets more sun than anywhere else in Italy, which means the region’s wine is delicious. The negroamaro grape, nearly exclusive to the region, produces a smooth, medium-bodied wine.

Sicily
Sun and Sea
The food of this island, the “ball” being kicked by the “boot,” has a legion of influences, thanks to the many invasions over the millennia. Greeks, Vikings, Muslims and Spanish have all contributed to the cuisine. The sun and the sea have also played a large roll in shaping Sicily’s table. Everything from capers to saffron to wild fennel can be found in pasta dishes (often laced, not surpsingly, with seafood). Arancini, fried rice balls, are a must. So are cannoli, fried tubular dough stuffed with cream. Lemons are ubiquitous here, which means a true taste of Sicily can be found in drinks like the luscious after-dinner digestivi, limoncello.

[Photo by David Farley]

Fake Pilot Arrested After Flying Across Europe

fake pilotPolice in Italy have arrested a man for impersonating a pilot and fooling the crew and ground staff into letting him into the cockpit of a European flight, the BBC reports.

A man managed to pose as a pilot using a uniform and fake ID and fly in the cockpit of an Air Dolomiti flight from Munich to Turin on April 6. Reportedly he flew as a “third pilot” and did not touch the controls.

Police, who have not revealed the man’s name, say he is jobless. They are now investigating his motives. They’re also checking to see if he managed to become a “crew member” of any other flights. He was arrested at Turin airport and was found to be in possession of uniforms similar to those worn by pilots but lacking an airline logo, a fake ID and fake flight manuals.

The man used the alias Andrea Sirlo and even created a Facebook page for himself with fake flight attendants as friends.

The website Myflightbook lists Andrew Sirlo as the pilot on a Munich-Turin flight on October 23, 2011.

Bungling airport security seems to be a regular feature here on Gadling. We’ve covered a number of stories such as a child boarding an international flight without a ticket or passport, TSA workers claiming body scanners cause cancer, and an elderly woman being put on the wrong flight.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Shroud Of Turin One Of 40 Fakes, Historian Says

Shroud of TurinThe Shroud of Turin has been causing controversy for centuries now. The linen cloth, measuring 14 feet by 4 feet, has what appear to be bloodstains on it. Also, the image of a wounded man can be seen, an image that becomes clearer when looked at as a photographic negative.

Now historian Antonio Lombatti of the Università Popolare in Parma, Italy, says the Shroud of Turin is a fake, and not only that, it’s not a very original one. About forty pieces of cloth purported to be the burial shroud of Jesus circulated in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Religious relics were popular then and now.

Lombatti say the shroud was given to a French knight in Turkey in 1346. This is the first concrete record of the Shroud and agrees with radiocarbon analysis of the linen. In 1988, the University of Oxford, University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology independently tested parts of the Shroud and each said it dates to sometime between 1260-1390.

The photographic negative image was well within the ability of medieval technology as far back as the eleventh century A.D., according to one researcher who made his own shrouds using medieval techniques.

Also, John 19:40 and 20:6-7 clearly state that Jesus was wrapped in several strips of linen, not just one, and that his head was wrapped in a separate cloth.

None of this, of course, will dissuade the thousands of believers who flock to the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, where the Shroud is kept and (rarely) exhibited.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Italy’s Battle of the Oranges

Even before Filippo Prior rides into the ancient piazza on the back of a horse-drawn carriage, he feels the giddy adrenalin rush of battle and the unnerving fear that comes with the knowledge that he and his teammates are about to get pelted with hundreds of cold, hard oranges.

“You hear the roar of the crowd, people screaming before you enter the piazza,” says Prior, a 21-year old member of the Cavalry of the Tricolore, a carriage team which competes in Italy’s annual Battle of the Oranges, a pre-Lenten carnival in Ivrea, near Turin. “It’s scary. You have a helmet but you can’t see anything because oranges are flying at you from all angles.”

The Battaglia delle Arance is a three-day orgy of orange-throwing insanity that is part of an ancient six-day carnival that attracts some 100,000 spectators and 4,000 participants to the small northern Italian city of Ivrea each February. The event, which begins today, appears to be unregulated mayhem but it’s actually highly structured and has deep historical significance.

The carnival commemorates a 12th century rebellion that was sparked by Violletta, a commoner who cut off the head of a tyrannical lord who tried to enforce the custom of taking her virginity on her wedding night. For centuries, carnivals-goers in the town threw beans at each other because feudal lords used to bestow two pots of them per year on poor people in the town. The bean-throwing was meant to signify their disdain for the handouts, but was also good fun.

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But in the mid-nineteenth century, the tradition gradually changed as young women adopted the custom of standing on balconies and pelting boys they fancied from above with oranges. If the boys liked their attacker, they returned fire. These days, the city trucks in 57,000 crates, or 400 tons worth of oranges from Southern Italy that would otherwise be thrown away for use in the battle.

Dozens of carriage teams on horse-drawn carts, signifying the tyrant’s guards, compete against nine “foot” teams, representing the rebellious commoners. The carriage players are completely surrounded and outnumbered, so these participants have to be either very brave, or very pazo (crazy), preferably both.

“On the wagon, you have only eight people and you are throwing oranges against 400-500 people at a time- you are completely under siege,” says Prior, an Ivrea native who has been competing in the battle since he was 12. “You get hit everywhere- on the helmet, the arms, the chest, your hands.”
According to Prior, each carriage player competes for just one of the three days in the battle due the vicious nature of the combat.

“The next day your arms are purple- completely covered in bruises from getting hit so many times,” he says. “There is no way you could do all three days.”

The local authorities set up first aid tents around the five piazzas used for the event, each one is “defended” by a different foot team. The organizers say that no one has ever suffered a severe injury and some view getting a black eye or a bruise on the face as a badge of courage. Spectators wear red berets to signify themselves as non-combatants but still get hit with stray fire. The splattered oranges and horse droppings create a colossal mess that’s eventually cleaned up by a team of 100 workers.

On Fat Tuesday, a team of judges give awards to the foot and carriage teams based upon their throwing ability, costumes and adherence to rules, such as not hitting the horses with oranges. The festival concludes with a huge procession, which culminates with a likeness of a sword-weilding Violetta presiding over a burning scarlo, a pole covered in heather and juniper bushes. The crowd goes wild, cheering for the scarlo to burn as quickly as possible. A quick burn is an omen that the coming year will be a good one; a slow burn means trouble is on the way.

The teams have been together for decades, but foreign visitors are welcome to join if they pay a registration fee. But Prior has a word of advice for newcomers.

“Definitely wear old clothes and shoes, because all your things will be ruined.”

Photos courtesy of Torino Tourism- via Marco Leonardi.