Daily Archives: January 20, 2024

Agnes Sweet & Agnes Fair

Last March, we lost a wonderful writer called Helen Barolini. I never knew of her work until I accidentally stumbled upon one of her books, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) at a library book sale. I was drawn immediately to the title and the cover, as you might expect, and I spent a dollar on that book, one of my better investments. What a treasure it is. The book covers Italian celebrations throughout the year, another Book of Days of sorts. And though I will go long spells without pulling it off my bookshelf, I always think of Helen Barolini on this night, this 20th of January, because of something she wrote in that book about this night, St. Agnes Eve, the night before the Feast of St. Agnes of Rome, patron saint of young girls and Girl Scouts.

A bit about St. Agnes Eve customs first: tradition tells us that this is a night for romantic divination. I think of it as our first step toward the romance of St. Valentine’s Day. It has long been held as a night when young girls might expect to see visions of their future loves. In Italy, they might go to bed tonight without supper, quite voluntarily, so that they might dream of their future husbands. In Scotland, where Agnes is a common name (as is its reverse version, Segna), they will go to bed sated, but may stay up later than usual. There, the custom is to throw grain onto the soil of a field at midnight while reciting the following spell:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.

In other places, young girls will be baking cakes with the hope that their future husbands will come and turn them, or they will be walking to bed backwards with the hope that their future husbands will come to them in their dreams, or they will be eating a hard boiled egg before bed, yolk removed, the cavity filled with salt. The hope there, too, is to see their future husband. (With any luck, he’ll be carrying a pitcher of water, as well.)

Helen Barolini’s touching passage about St. Agnes Eve in her book Festa is about meeting, and losing, the love of her life, the writer Antonio Barolini: And though I fasted and hoped to see my intended as I slept on that eve, I never did picture Antonio Barolini in my imagination or in my dreams. But now I think how strange it is that his death came on January 21, Saint Agnes Eve.

She made an error in the day (January 21 is St. Agnes Day, not St. Agnes Eve), but still, that passage remains for me a poignant one. Our joys, our sorrows, intertwined, like the intimate dance of saints’ days and old customs that, in most cases, predate those days. These are the old stories that fascinate me.

For us English Majors, perhaps the first thing we think of most when we hear the words St. Agnes Eve is the Romantic narrative poem written by John Keats in 1820. It makes for fine reading this night, full, as it is, with the romance and ghostly apparitions one expects from a poem of that era, perfect for a cold wintry night like St. Agnes Eve. But it is a commitment, for it is a very long poem, indeed. Here, if you can’t read the poem in its entirety, is the sixth stanza:

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night.
If ceremonies due they did aright,
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

And though I’ve hundreds of books in my bookcase that I’ve purchased over the years and not yet read, I am once again reading Helen Barolini’s Festa. Her book begins in December, which is not at all a bad place to begin a year, as so much of January is wrapped up still in the celebrations of midwinter. Christmas songs are still in my head as I go about my days, and I am still at work on this year’s Copperman’s Day print. I may very well be working on it tonight, this wintry St. Agnes Eve… perhaps even upon the honey’d middle of the night.


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My apologies to subscribers: This was meant to be published before I went to bed on Friday night, but I was so tired, I forgot to do so. As a result, subscribers will receive notice of this newest chapter of the Convivio Book of Days on January 21. Perhaps I am just tuning into the spirit of Helen Barolini, who had confused the date of St. Agnes Eve in her book. At any rate: my apologies if you’ve missed a chance at romantic divination for St. Agnes Eve, and if perchance you were not planning on divination, then that’s fine: just enjoy the read.

Our image today is an illustration for another poem called “St. Agnes Eve,” this one by Tennyson: more religious, less romantic, but just as cold and snowy. Wood engraving by the Dalziel Brothers after a design by Sir John Everett Millais. Published in Some Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Moxon Edition, 1857. Royal Academy Collection, London, via Wikimedia Commons.