San Juan Festival: Baptism by fire and water

Algeciras, just before midnight on the 23rd of June. Life-sized rag dolls are being carried down to the beaches at Getares and El Rinconcillo. Called Juanillos, these dolls carry inside them the secret wishes of Algeciran citizens, scribbled on bits of paper and stuffed in their bellies. Once they have reached the beach these dolls, together with the wishes committed to their bellies, are set on fire. This is the 'Fiesta de los Juanillos'. It's just one of hundreds of different versions of the San Juan Festival, celebrated on the shortest night of the year, across Spain.

Based on the pagan-agricultural celebration of summer solstice as well as the birth of Saint John the Baptist, it's to the Canary Islands where we can trace the origins of the modern-day Dia de San Juan, first announced as a festival in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1478. Associating the ancient midsummer festivities with Saint John would be a way of legitimizing them in the eyes of the church.

The local customs associated with the day are a testament to Spain's regional diversity.

On the morning of the 24th, for instance, on the beach at Puerto de La Cruz, Tenerife, the jingling of bells can be heard as hundreds of goats are driven into the sea by local shepherds. This is the traditional annual baño de cabras. Another local tradition in Canarias sees fountains, wells and springs decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables.

In the Celtic north, the towns of Cantabria observe San Juan in fear of three malevolent, winged, horse-beasts called los caballucos del diablo. The beasts fly around in the sky making terrifying shierking noises and looking to wreak mischief on anyone they find. The only way of ensuring they do you no harm is by carrying a four-leafed clover or by walking barefoot on St.John's wort, la hierba de San Juan. Which is why Cantabrians often go to the fields in days prior to the festival looking for these lucky charms.

Generally however there are three aspects of San Juan that are common to all Spanish communities. These are fire, water, and herbs.

Fire represents fertility and abundance. Hence no San Juan celebration is held without a bonfire or fireworks. The bonfire, in European pagan tradition, is meant to give strength to the Sun-God, as, after solstice, the days become shorter, and the sun's power will steadily fade. In towns all over Spain, a common sight is that of people jumping over the bonfire, hand in hand. In Catalonia doing it seven times brings good luck. It’s also common to write a wish on a piece of paper, throw it in the fire and then jump three times. During the Nit de Sant Joan Festival in Barcelona, each barrio (neigborhood) has its own firework displays and bonfires stacked with old furniture.

Water also features in the festival as a symbol of spiritual purification, echoing Saint John's baptism of Jesus. Hence whether it be in a sea, river, lake or fountain, communities across Spain perform a sort of mass baptism. In Barcelona virtually every able body in the city will swim in the sea at some point during the day- or at night. It’s now common to take a post-midnight swim, which often turns into a mass skinny-dipping event.

As well as the acrid smell of fireworks hanging in the air there’s often a pungent herbal aroma- in particular, the herbs rosemary, thyme and purple-top verbena. Burning or eating these hierbas, or just wearing a sprig on your collar, is another Sant Joan tradition. As well as their curative powers- said to be enhanced a hundred times over on this day- it’s also believed they have an aphrodisiacal effect. So, gentlemen, you might prefer to decline the traditional bag of herbs before skinny-dipping in the sea.

Regional food also plays an important part in the festivities. In Catalonia, it's all about a coca washed down with a bit of cava. In the foothills of Granada, the town of Lanjarón has its own Festival del Agua Y del Jamón. First comes a pilgrimmage of a kilometre and a half where revellers are soaked with buckets and hoses as they pass through the streets. And at the end they eat jamón around the bonfire. In La Coruña's Playa de Orzán, sardines are roasted on the fire, together with cachelas - potatoes soaked in oil and paprika.

Whether as a rite of purification from evil spirits, a mass baptism commemorating a Christian saint or an excuse to burn stuff and get naked, San Juan is all about engaging with traditions; involving ourselves in customs and rites that, no matter how ridiculous they seem, or ethically contradictory, make each community what it is today and also make us reach out to our ancestors.

Now then, where are those matches...

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