Nonna’s memories of Orsogna

Several decades ago, on June 24th (St. John’s day), the village of Orsogna was animated by a popular fair, la Fiera di San Giovanni, an annual agricultural event where farmers could trade animals and work tools, in preparation of reaping times. The fair was also the yearly occasion to buy straw hats and sickles, which were the necessary equipment to cope with the long months in the fields, harvesting wheat.

St. John’s Fair was a day of religious celebration and also a profane opportunity for merchants and artisans to boost their business, in fact, they used to exhibit their best products to attract both local and visiting buyers. The town square was decorated with sheaves of wheat, donated by farmers while part of the proceeds of that glorious trading event went to the local parish of St. John as a sign of devotion and a good omen for the harvest. The church no longer exists because of the hard bombings of World War II.

My grandmother used to recall that extraordinary event of her childhood:

“The male members of my family went to Orsogna to get a straw hat, buy a new sickle or fix the old one they used the previous year. Those were the preliminary operations everybody had to undergo before the annual wheat harvest. I was only a kid but already accustomed to help the adults in the fields and I frequently wondered myself why I had to work so hard while the others went to what looked like a festa to me. All the world met in Orsogna, the harvest season officially began with St. John’s Fair but for me it only meant long, exhausting months of hard, hard work under the sun, cutting the ears and dreaming of a little rest among the stacks”.

Popular beliefs and legends surround the feast of St. John. It is told that on that day, the longest of the year, the sun rose four times. At dawn women used to utter ancient rhymes by groves of reeds, so that their hair grew as long as the leaves of canes. On St. John’s eve, the night between 23rd and 24th June, families used to place outside the window a bowl containing one egg white and water: according to the shape of albumen, young girls would understand their future husband’s craft.

On that same night, men gathered together to collect medicinal herbs in the woods to cure all sorts of diseases. Finally, on St. John’s day relationships of kinship and close friendship (the so-called compare, godfather) were established in front of the statue of the saint, reciting a nursery rhyme and exchanging bouquets of red carnations. Even nowadays to identify one’s bond with godfather we use the expression “ci sta il San Giovanni di mezzo” (there’s St. John in the middle).  

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