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The many ways Spain celebrates Midsummer Eve

Bonfire jumps are popular celebrations in many places on this day.
Bonfire jumps are popular celebrations in many places on this day. Copyright Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Copyright Efrem Lukatsky/AP
By Jesús Maturana
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This article was originally published in Spanish

Midsummer's Eve is celebrated in many ways in Spain. But did you know that it is a celebration that dates back to ancient, pagan traditions?

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In Spain, this magical night takes place from 23rd to 24th June and is full of rituals and ancestral traditions. However, the celebration goes far beyond our borders with celebrations in many European countries, on the other side of the Atlantic and even in Asia.

But what was the origin of this celebration that coincides in traditions in various parts of the world?

Many attribute what is also known as St. John's Eve to an event spread by Christianity because it is celebrated on the eve of St. John the Baptist's Day, on 24th June. However, its origins go much further back in time.

Origin of Midsummer Night

Midsummer Night combines pagan and Christian traditions, so we should speak of a mixed tradition that comes from mystical beliefs, either from a religion or from astrology, as the summer solstice falls around this time, being the longest day and the shortest night of the year, which is normally June 21st (or December 21st in the Southern hemisphere.)

Pagan origins: Natural powers and the mystique of the shortest night

Before Christianity arrived, many cultures celebrated the summer solstice as a magical time. It was believed that on this date the powers of nature were at their peak. This gave birth to the Litha celebration, which is celebrated on this date.

It was believed that on this date, the powers of nature were at their peak. Bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.

La noche de San Juan
La noche de San JuanDe Jules Bretonhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37950241

Christianisation of the celebration, Midsummer's Night was born.

With the arrival of Christianity, the Church adapted these pagan festivities. Midsummer Night was linked to the birth of John the Baptist, who according to the Bible was born six months before Jesus.

The date of his birth is celebrated on 24 June. The bonfires and rituals remained, but were now associated with John the Baptist.

Origin of the name and how it is known in different countries

The Feast of St. John, also known as St. John's Eve or St. John's Night, is an annual celebration that takes place on the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist on 24 June.

The holiday is celebrated in many parts of Europe and is particularly popular in peripheral areas. Some of the countries where it is celebrated include:

  • England: where it is known as 'Midsummer' or 'St. John's Eve'. The solstice is celebrated with bonfires and festivals.
  • Ireland: known as 'Oíche San Seáin' or 'Oíche Fhéile Eoin' or 'Bonfire Night'. Bonfires are lit and festivals are held.
  • Spain: where it is especially popular and is known as Noche de San Juan, Fiesta de San Juan or Víspera de San Juan.
  • Portugal: with the 'Fogueiras de São João', bonfires are lit and jumped over.
  • Italy: known as 'La notte di San Juan' and celebrated in different ways depending on the region including lanterns, fireworks and bonfires.
  • Norway: with the celebration of 'Jonsok'.
  • Denmark: where 'Sankthans' is celebrated.
  • Sweden: with the festival of 'Midsommar'.
  • Finland: where it is called 'Juhannus'.
  • Estonia: with the celebration of 'Jaanipäev'.

In South America, the Feast of St. John is celebrated especially in northeastern Argentina, Brazil (where it is known as 'Festas Juninas'), Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. In these regions, the night of San Juan is related to ancient Spanish traditions and legends, such as the Leyenda de la Encantada, la Xana.

Common celebrations and beliefs on this night

In most countries bonfires are lit and jumped on to ward off bad energies and erase the past in an attempt to make a fresh start and feel a sense of renewal.

The most popular celebrations are:

  • Bonfire burning: Bonfires are lit to ward off bad energies and purify the atmosphere.
  • Jumping into the fire and waves: It is believed that jumping into the fire or waves on the beach allows you to make wishes and attract good luck.
  • Rituals with water and medicinal herbs: Some people wash their faces in water as a request for good health and beauty in the coming year.
  • Burning of a lock of hair: Some less deep-rooted traditions include burning a lock of hair to enhance happiness as a couple.
  • Flower wreaths: Flower wreaths are used as a symbol of nature and fertility. People wear them on their heads or hang them on doors.
  • Dances and music: Celebrations often include traditional dances and festive music.
  • Divination rituals: Some people perform divination practices, such as reading bonfire ashes or using magical herbs.
  • Food and drink: Festivities often include feasts with typical seasonal dishes, such as fresh fruit and produce.

Midsummer's Eve in Spain by provinces

Andalusia

In Andalusia, it is common to celebrate the Noche de San Juan with bonfires on the beaches, fireworks and popular festivities in coastal cities such as Malaga. In this city, dolls are also burnt on the bonfire, known as " júas".

In places like Isla Cristina and other parts of the coast of Huelva, this festivity is known by the less common name of bonfires of San Juan.

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In Almería, the day after the Noche de San Juan is a local holiday. As in Malaga, a very popular fiesta is celebrated with moragas, bonfires and bonfires on the beach all night long.

It has become a tradition to bathe on the beach, or at least get your face, eyes, feet and hands wet at midnight, in the hope of waking up more beautiful the next day.

The Fiesta del Agua y del Jamón, held on 24 June, is the main festival in Lanjarón (Granada).

In Motril and Salobreña, bonfires are lit on the beach and camping is allowed. Three wishes are written on paper and thrown into the fire, and three negative things are thrown into the sea to be washed away by the tide. Women wash their faces with sea water and rose petals in the morning to be more beautiful for the rest of the year.

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In Algeciras, it has been a tradition for years to go to the beaches on 23 June before midnight. The locals carry and install the traditional rag dolls called juanillos on the beaches of El Rinconcillo and Getares, which burn at midnight on that day with secret wishes hidden inside.

"Juanillos" as it is known, is also common in La Línea de la Concepción. Specifically, on the beaches of San Bernardo, El Castillo and Atunara, where thousands of locals come to see the candles and where many brave people even take a night swim.

In Conil de la Frontera, the activity consists of the burning of the "Juan and Juana", also known as the Juanillos, rag dolls representing a man and a woman, which are placed on a structure created from pallets, wood and dried Pita branches.

Aragon

In Aragon, it is celebrated with bonfires in different parts of the region and moonlight baths in rivers and lakes. In the Aragonese Pyrenees, the tradition of lighting the fallas is shared with Andorra, France and Catalonia.

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In the town of El Pobo (Teruel) the arrival of the summer solstice is celebrated with a festival at an altitude of over 1,400 metres, called Poborina Folk.

Asturias

This night is traditionally known as 'Nueche de San Xuan', during which 'les fogueres ' are lit. The Danza Prima is performed around the fire, singing and dancing.

The bonfires that take place on Poniente beach and Arbeyal beach (both in Gijón) are very popular. All of them are animated by musical groups, fireworks and the typical Asturian "espichas" where cider is consumed.

In Asturias, a people of Celtic origin, as well as worshipping the sun, they also celebrate the cult of water. On the night of San Juan, at midnight, people immerse themselves in the water of springs, rivers or beaches, believing that on that night, the fields, mountains, rivers, streams and springs will be blessed and the water will provide them with health and protection against disease.

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On this night, a special tribute is also paid to the creatures of Asturian mythology, such as the xanas, goblins or cuélebres.

Balearic Islands

In Menorca, a tradition that dates back to the 14th century is celebrated in Ciudadela and is replicated in other municipalities during the summer, with the horse as the central figure. The riders or 'caixers', dressed in black and white, go through the streets of the town on horseback. Once everyone has gathered and after mass, the traditional 'jaleo' (not to be confused with flamenco singing and dancing) takes place.

During the jaleo, the caixers enter the village square and parade through the crowd, showing off their skills and making the horses jump to the beat of the typical songs of these festivities, especially a jota that is very popular in the region and is performed by a local band. The enthusiastic crowd makes the horses jump as a symbol of power and nobility.

At the end of the traditional jaleo on the second day, the authorities proceed to hand out canes, and the caixers return to the square to make the horses jump before saying goodbye. Once the jaleo and 'ses canyes' are over, the music band begins to play typical Menorcan songs or songs that were very popular at the time.

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The drink consumed during the festivities is 'Gin amb Llimonada' in Ciudadela and 'pomada' in the rest of the villages. Both are practically the same, but with different names that are highly respected by the citizens. This drink is a combination of Menorcan gin with lemonade.

In Mallorca, Formentera and Ibiza, bonfires are organised in the squares and there is no shortage of music and dancing, filling the people with joy. The magic hour is midnight, the time to join in the ritual of purification through fire.

According to tradition, something old or a piece of paper on which we have written everything we would like to change should be thrown into the fire. While it burns in the flames, you jump three times in a row. It is also common to do this on beaches or coves where bonfires are built and at midnight, with our backs turned, three coins are thrown into the sea, each coin representing a wish.

Canary Islands

The festival of San Juan is celebrated throughout the archipelago on the night of 23 June and the early morning of the 24th. In Tenerife, several celebrations are held, most notably in Punta del Hidalgo, where there is a pilgrimage with the image of the saint to "el Güigo", a place by the sea, and bonfires are burnt. In Puerto de la Cruz, the public fountains are decorated with plants and bonfires are burnt on the beach. On the morning of 24 June, the goat bathing takes place on the fishing quay.

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In Gran Canaria, and especially in Las Palmas, the celebration of San Juan is a great tradition, as the city was founded on this day in 1478. Bonfires are held on the beaches, especially on Las Canteras Beach, where thousands of people congregate.

Cantabria

In Cantabria, the ancestral traditions of the magical night of San Juan are maintained, including jumping over bonfires, stepping on burning ashes, dancing around the fire, and carrying the fire to the fields to purify the harvest. During the festival, the 'mozucas' are wooed by placing poplar or alder branches in their windows, and a large bouquet or tree is placed in the centre of the village.

Legends say that on this night the 'Caballucos del Diablo' (Devil's horses) appear, three winged horses that terrorise the dancers and those who gather around the fire. To protect themselves from them, they look for a four-leaf clover.

The young men also look for 'la verbena' or 'yerbuca de San Juan', and many people still look for the early morning dew to walk barefoot on it and obtain health. Among the most outstanding San Juan festivals in Cantabria are those of Los Corrales de Buelna and San Juan de la Canal.

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Castile and León

The night of San Juan, celebrated on 23 June, is an important festival in the Castile and León region, with outstanding events in León and Soria. In Burgos, the main festivities of San Pedro and San Pablo are celebrated, and bonfires of San Juan are lit.

The province of León honours the legend of La Encantada, also known as La Xana, especially in the mountainous areas. In Salamanca, the popular festivities in the region of El Rebollar include open-air dances, bull runs and bullfights.

In Palencia, the town of Velilla del Río Carrión celebrates the night of 23 June with a traditional bonfire and fire rites of Celtic tradition.

Zamora celebrates the Fiestas de San Pedro with the Feria del Ajo (Garlic Fair) and the Feria de la Cerámica y Alfarería Popular (Pottery and Popular Pottery Fair). Segovia also celebrates the Fiestas of San Juan and San Pedro.

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In Soria, in the town of San Pedro Manrique, the 'Paso del fuego' is celebrated, where the people of San Pedro cross a path of glowing embers barefoot.

Finally, in Valladolid, the night of San Juan is mainly celebrated on the beach of Las Moreras, where people gather around bonfires to throw their wishes written on paper. The celebration is enlivened by concerts and gastronomic stalls.

Castile-La Mancha

In Albacete, the festivities in honour of San Juan Bautista, patron saint of the city, are held in the days leading up to 24 June. These festivities include cultural, sporting and leisure activities in various parts of the city.

Fiestas en Albacete, con antorchas en San Juan - By Angel Aroca Escámez
Fiestas en Albacete, con antorchas en San Juan - By Angel Aroca EscámezCC BY-SA 3.0

On the night of 23-24 June, the eve of the festival, there is a torchlight parade from the Town Hall to the Ejidos de la Feria, where the Bonfire of San Juan is lit and old objects are burnt. Afterwards, there is a fireworks display and a verbena (street party) in the fairgrounds.

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On the 24th, a pilgrimage takes place in which Saint John is taken from the Cathedral to the Park of the Tree Festival.

Catalonia

In Catalonia, the night of San Juan is known as the 'pura de Sant Joan', the 'Nit del Foc', the 'Nit de les Bruixes' or the 'Nit del Ros'. The tradition of the flame of the Canigó stands out, a flame that is distributed from the top of the Canigó mountain to hundreds of villages to light the bonfires on Midsummer's Eve. This flame is kept alight all year round at the Castellet in Perpignan and is renewed every 23 June.

In Barcelona, the flame arrives at Plaça Sant Jaume, where it is received by the municipal authorities and the representatives of each neighbourhood collect the fire to light the bonfires in the city. With the lighting of the bonfires, the street parties begin in the squares and streets of Barcelona's neighbourhoods, accompanied by popular dinners, firework displays and dancing until the early hours of the morning.

Focs de San Juan De I, Joan Vilalta Colom
Focs de San Juan De I, Joan Vilalta ColomCC BY-SA 3.0

The Fallas of the Pyrenees are also celebrated in Andorra and in several regions of northern Catalonia, such as Pallars, Alta Ribagorza and Valle de Aran. For a couple of weeks, various types of fallas are burnt in towns such as Boí, Casós, El Pont de Suert and Vilaller, in a pre-Christian tradition to celebrate the arrival of summer. This tradition was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2015.

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Valencian Community

The Bonfires of San Juan are the official festivities of Alicante, Spain, declared of International Tourist Interest. Initiated in 1928 by José María Py, these festivities are similar to the Fallas in Valencia. They begin with a proclamation on the first Friday in June, and from 14 to 20 June "hogueras", satirical artistic monuments of wood and cardboard representing different areas of the city, are planted. These bonfires are burned four days later, after a fireworks display.

The festivities include parades, processions, flower offerings to the Virgen del Remedio, bullfights, mascletás, musical performances and sports championships. The fiesta is lived in the streets, with food and dancing in the 'barracas' and 'racós', and the tasting of the traditional 'coca amb tonyina' and 'bacores'. The 'Bellea del Foc', chosen from among the Bellezas of each of the 90 districts of the Bonfires, is the highest representative of the fiesta.

The bonfires are burnt on the night of 24th June, and it is customary for the firemen to douse the attendees with their hoses, in what is known as a 'banyà'.

In Valencia, firewood is distributed free of charge so that people can build their bonfires on the beach.

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Extremadura

In Coria, Cáceres, they celebrate the 'sanjuanes', a Fiesta of National Tourist Interest since 1976, which includes the release of bulls in the streets, although it has been criticised by environmental associations.

In the region of Olivenza, Badajoz, the Mastros are celebrated in Alconchel and Cheles, Las Muñecas in Olivenza, and the Juanes or Juanitos in Higuera de Vargas and Villanueva del Fresno. On the Night of San Juan, these mastros, dolls made of straw, rags or paper, are burnt in a tradition that dates back to the cult of the Sun and serves to burn all the bad things of the past year.

In Badajoz, the festival of San Juan is at the heart of the Feria in the provincial capital. The traditional burning of a firework display on the banks of the Guadiana River is a highlight.

Galicia

In Galicia, the Noche de San Juan, which celebrates the summer solstice, is an important festival with roots in Celtic culture. Bonfires are lit in every house, parish and neighbourhood, creating a spectacle of thousands of points of light. This magical night is associated with communication between the spiritual and earthly worlds, and is considered a time to ward off evil spirits.

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Bonfires are lit after midnight on the 24th, and jumping nine times over a bonfire is considered a sign of protection and good luck. It is also common to gather aromatic plants for washing the next day, a practice believed to have therapeutic and purifying properties.

Typical food for the night includes cachelos (potatoes boiled in their skins) and baked sardines, and the typical drink is Queimada, an eau-de-vie with fruit and sugar that is burnt in a cauldron while a spell is recited.

In La Coruña, the festival is especially big, with bonfires in all the neighbourhoods and a large concentration of people on the beaches of Riazor and Orzán. This celebration has been recognised as a Festival of International Tourist Interest.

Community of Madrid

The verbena of San Juan, which used to be a major event in Madrid and followed that of San Antonio de la Florida in the first half of June, is no longer celebrated as such, although bonfires are still held in some neighbourhoods.

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In addition, it is worth mentioning the celebrations in Tres Cantos, which coincide with local festivities, as well as in other cities such as Alcorcón, Leganés and Alcobendas. Also notable are the festivities in the neighbourhood of Juan de Austria (district V) in Alcalá de Henares, where the bonfire is fed by the theatrical sets of the Clásicos en Alcalá festival, which takes place in June.

La Rioja

On 24 June, in the Barrio de San Juan, also known as Barrio Abajo, in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, celebrations are held that include the creation of large bonfires, as well as smaller ones for children. The fiesta is enlivened with chocolate and music. In the evening, all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood share a meal.

The Fiestas de San Juan de Nájera are held from 24 to 29 June and are the most popular festivities in Nájera. The most outstanding and popular event is the 'Vueltas', where thousands of people take to the streets to sing and dance to the rhythm of a charanga, in memory of the accompaniment given to the Elizabethan troops when they returned from a victory over the Carlists. These festivities are one of the most popular in the whole of the Rioja region.

Basque Country

The festivities of San Juan in Tolosa, Guipúzcoa, are the patron saint of the town. They begin on 23 June with the 'chupinazo' at 12:00 noon and the traditional bonfires at night.

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The 24th of June is the main day of the festivities, with lunches prepared by the gastronomic societies for the escopeteros, dantzaris, musicians and the troupe of giants.

As we can see, the celebrations of this night in Spain are very varied, as is the case in Europe and the rest of the world. However, all the celebrations have fire and a spirit of renewal in common.

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