Sunday, June 24, 2012

Noite de San Xoan

The festival of Saint John or Noite de San Xoan is quite an event in Galicia in general and in La Coruña in particular.

The night of St. John, the night of the 23rd to 24th of June , coinciding with the summer solstice, is celebrated in a wide variety of ancient festivals and ritual practices in many places in Spain , especially around the purifying fires, the fires of St. John. This is a celebration dating from before the arrival of Christianity in which different cultures celebrate this solar event.
The date of June 24 corresponds, according to tradition, the date of the birth of Saint John [1] .
More on Midsummer festivals in Spain:
Midsummer tradition is also especially strong in northern areas of the country, such as Galicia, where one can easily identify the rituals that reveal the pagan beliefs widespread throughout Europe in Neolithic times. These beliefs pivot on three basic ideas: the importance of medicinal plants, especially in relation to health, youth and beauty; the protective character of fire to ward men off evil spirits and witches and, finally, the purifying, miraculous effects of water. What follows is a summary of Galician traditions surrounding St. John's festival in relation to these three elements.
  • Medicinal plants: Traditionally, women collect several species of plants on St. John's eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, different species of fern (e.g. dryopteris filix-mas), rue (herb of grace, ruta graveolens), rosemary, dog rose (rosa canina), lemon verbena, St John's wort (hypericum perforatum), mallows (malva sylvestris), laburnum, foxgloves (digitalis purpurea) and elder flowers. In some areas, these are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways. In most others, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning (o dia de San Xoan -St. John's day), when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.
  • Water: Tradition holds it that the medicinal plants mentioned above are most effective when dipped in water collected from seven different springs. Also, on some beaches, it was traditional for women who wanted to be fertile to bathe in the sea until they were washed by 9 waves.
  • Fire: Bonfires are lit, usually around midnight both on beaches and inland, so much so that one usually cannot tell the smoke from the mist common in this Atlantic corner of Iberia at this time of the year, and it smells burnt everywhere. Occasionally, a dummy is placed at the top, representing a witch or the devil. Young and all gather around them and feast mostly on pilchards, potatoes boiled in their skins and maize bread. When it is relatively safe to jump over the bonfire, it is done three times (although it could also be nine or any odd number) for good luck at the cry of “meigas fora” (witches off!).It is also common to drink Queimada, a beverage resulting from setting alight Galician grappa mixed with sugar, coffee beans and pieces of fruit, which is prepared while chanting an incantation against evil spirits.
Bonfires are built all over the beach (or wherever´s handy), roasted sardines are eaten and then people jump through/over the fires (at least) 3 times in a symbolic ¨rebirth¨.  In A Coruña there is also a parade, a falla or large figure that is burned, fireworks go off and some brave souls take the traditional purifying dip in the sea in the early hours.

These pictures were taken last year when V´s brother showed us around.  The whole roasted sardines smell very fishy, but are actually quite tasty served on thick pieces of Galician bread. Huge numbers of people head down to the beaches of Riazor and Orzan and cart unbelievable amounts of flammable material for their personal bonfires.  There was a prominent fire brigade presence.  Unfortunately, accidents do happen, as you might expect.  Last year some poor guy burned to death after tripping, and at least one person drowned the following morning.

I find it interesting that this clearly pagan celebration is still so popular and powerful.

Do you suppose s´mores might catch on?

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