The night of San Juan is getting closer, and for many a reason to enjoy a night surrounded by friends, fun and traditions. But what is the night of San Juan and what is its origin? If you are on the Camino during the next June 23rd and 24th, you should keep reading to make the most of this magical folkloric heritage.
What is San Juan Night?
San Juan Night is an ancient midsummer celebration that takes place in the evening of the 23rd of June. It is also known as Saint John’s Eve. Though technically the summer solstice is celebrated on June 21st, it is not until the night of the 23rd to the 24th that people gather around a bonfire to celebrate the beginning of summer and ward off evil spirits.
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San Juan (also known as San Xoán, Sant Joan, San Xuán or São João) is celebrated in Spain, Portugal and South America. In Alicante (Spain), the festivity takes place on the night of the 24th of June. San Juan is Alicante’s biggest cultural event, and the celebration has been declared of International Tourist Interest. Portugal’s most important St John’s Eve celebration is the Festa de São João do Porto, one of Europe’s liveliest street festivals. At the other side of the Atlantic, this festivity is known as Festa Junina (June Party) in Brazil.
Origins of San Juan
The festival has ancient, pagan origins. Originally a summer solstice celebration, bonfires were lit to honor the sun and to protect against the evil spirits who could roam freely for the night. Overall, San Juan was a celebration tied to nature, honoring the changing of season.
After the introduction of Christianity, the festival was linked to the day of birth of St. John the Baptist, June 24, when his father lit a bonfire in celebration of his birth.
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San Juan in Galicia: symbols and traditions
In Galicia there are numerous traditions and legends around the so-called “Noite Meiga”. Associated with Celtic culture and its mythology in this case, the night of San Juan we find spells of protection, purification and fertility. As well as both pagan and religious rituals to scare away evil spirits that give free rein to their mischief on the shortest night of the year:
En San Xoán meigas e bruxas fuxirán
But the celebration is far from outdated. This year more than ever, the night of San Juan is a time of great celebration, when people can gather around a bonfire to eat, drink and enjoy, and finally return to a life of normality. And there are as many ways to celebrate it as there are villages in Galicia. What can you expect from this magical day? Fire, water, earth and air… All the traditions surrounding this mystical holiday ultimately boil down to this wonderful organic element that is the earth that surrounds us and ultimately connects us as beings with all the symbols and meanings of this night.
Bonfires are probably the most iconic element of San Juan. Also known as “cacharelas” or “lumeiradas”, they burn from north to south, from east to west, in any point of the Galician map. Lit to celebrate but also to roast food and keep the participants warm, we recommend you to bring a couple of extra beach towels. Because San Juan may be celebrated in June, but Galician nights can still be cold.
It’s tradition to jump over the fire for good luck and protection, but how many times should we do it? Well, there are different opinions. Some say 7 or 9, and others just that it must be an odd number.
People burn old clothes and things they want to get rid of as a purification ritual. And since San Juan is right after the end of the school year, many students burn their notes or even their books to celebrate having passed their exams.
Water is also a key element in the Night of San Juan. Traditionally, people gathered water from seven different fountains, a tradition known as “facer o cacho”. A “cacho” is a bowl where you must leave the water overnight. The bowl has to be left outdoors during the night, alongside San Juan herbs. In the morning, you should wash your face with it, but be careful! If you look into a mirror while doing it, the spell doesn’t work!
Swimming in the sea is part of the ritual too. Water and the sea are associated with purification and fertility. If you want to take part in the ritual, you must jump over nine (or seven) waves. But if you’re planning to enjoy San Juan, keep in mind that swimming in the sea in the middle of the night could be dangerous, especially amidst a massive celebration in beaches like Riazor or Orzán, where they have prohibited it for security reasons.
There’s a third element to the San Juan rituals in Galicia: the San Juan herbs. The herbs are an assortment of mostly medicinal plants that have to be picked up on Saint John’s Eve. The specific herbs vary by region, but they must be seven. The number seven is a constant throughout San Juan: jumping over the fire seven times, drinking from seven fountains, jumping over seven waves…
Many of the herbs have medicinal properties, so they were collected both because of this and because of their power against evil. If you want to prepare yours, here are some of them!
- Fennel: works against the evil eye
- Male fern: according to legend, it flowers in the night of San Juan
- Adenocarpus: from this plant, brooms were made to sweep the spirits off the home
- St. John’s Wort: works against the devil and is very popular in traditional medicine
- Common mallow: good for several ailments
- Rosemary: used for protection
- Lemon verbena: good for love and associated with parties
- Other herbs like foxglove, mugwort or camomile can be part of the herbs of San Juan too
But how do we use them? Herbs are left outside during the night of San Juan, so that the dew and the solstice infuses them with power. Usually, they are left inside a bowl with water (that must be picked up from seven different fountains!). This herb infused water will be used to wash in the morning. The herbs are then dried and used in home remedies.
Herbs can also serve as protection from evil spirits and witches, so you could hang a bouquet by the door or the window.
What’s a Galician party without its food?
As the saying goes: “polo San Xoán, a sardiña molla o pan” (on the day of St John, sardines soak the loaf of bread). Sardines are, without a doubt, the star of San Juan. They are eaten alongside cachelos (boiled potatoes) or bread. Depending on what part of Galicia you’re from, this bread can be broa (Galician corn bread) or wheat bread.
The beginning of summer is the best time of the year to eat sardines. However, because of the celebration, it is also the most expensive. But there are always other options. Some people use the fire to roast some meat and have a barbecue (churrasco), whilst others bring something easier to make, like a sandwich.
Some people mark the occasion with a queimada, a traditional alcoholic beverage made from aguardiente and flavored with coffee beans, lemon peel and different herbs. Queimada is set alight (its name is Galician for ‘burnt’) while someone reads the esconxuro, a queimada spell. It certainly fits the mood of San Juan night!
Mouchos, coruxas, sapos e bruxas.
Demos, trasnos e dianhos, espritos das nevoadas veigas.
Corvos, pintigas e meigas, feitizos das mencinheiras.
Pobres canhotas furadas, fogar dos vermes e alimanhas.
Lume das Santas Companhas, mal de ollo, negros meigallos, cheiro dos mortos, tronos e raios.
Oubeo do can, pregon da morte, foucinho do satiro e pe do coello.
Pecadora lingua da mala muller casada cun home vello.
Averno de Satan e Belcebu, lume dos cadavres ardentes, corpos mutilados dos indecentes, peidos dos infernales cus, muxido da mar embravescida.
Barriga inutil da muller solteira, falar dos gatos que andan a xaneira, guedella porra da cabra mal parida.
Con este fol levantarei as chamas deste lume que asemella ao do inferno, e fuxiran as bruxas acabalo das sas escobas, indose bañar na praia das areas gordas.
¡Oide, oide! os ruxidos que dan as que non poden deixar de queimarse no agoardente, quedando asi purificadas.
E cando este brebaxe baixe polas nosas gorxas, quedaremos libres dos males da nosa ialma e de todo embruxamento.
Forzas do ar, terra, mar e lume, a vos fago esta chamada: si e verdade que tendes mais poder que a humana xente, eiqui e agora, facede cos espritos dos amigos que estan fora, participen con nos desta queimada.
On the night of San Juan we can find bonfires all over the city of Coruña, especially on the beaches of Riazor and Orzán. There, locals and visitors gather to celebrate the solstice, watch the fireworks from the esplanade of Las Esclavas and observe how the flying lanterns begin to float until they merge with the night sky.
The night of San Juan on the beaches of A Coruña is a massive party, which has been declared of National Tourist Interest. The party is not limited to the beaches, all corners of the city are filled with life during that night with music, singing and joyful hustle and bustle of all ages and genders.
However, A Coruña is not the only place to celebrate San Juan on the beach and there are many places that join the festivities with the same level of affluence.
Although the bonfires can no longer be held near the beaches, as they used to be in the past, the celebrations continue to be multitudinous in the center of the city. Special mention should be made of the bonfires concentrated in the streets of the historic neighborhood of Berbés, where the festivities begin in the afternoon, with traditional games, storytelling and theatrical performances for the little ones. The Aquelarre begins its procession through the oldest neighborhoods of the city to end with the lighting of the bonfires. Floral workshops, folkloric performances, speeches and joy for the beginning of summer flood each and every one of the neighborhoods of the olivic city. Something not to be missed if you are passing through on your Portuguese Coastal Way.
Panxón is also a well-known locality among the locals of the region of Vigo. After two years without celebrations, this year the neighbors hope to recover the traditional bonfires and verbenas on the beaches and docks. One of the most popular options among young people because of its character as a tourist destination.
Another favorite option is the celebrations on the beach of A Lanzada, in the Pontevedra town of Bueu, where it was traditionally believed that receiving the waves 9 times increased female fertility.
Santiago de Compostela
The festivity of San Juan in Santiago is diverse. University students, pilgrims and locals come together in a night of multiculturalism and tradition. On the morning of June 23, you can find herbs in the market of Santiago, to prepare the cacho. In addition, Santiago Turismo offers an itinerary around the city to fetch water from the seven fountains for those who visit the Galician capital and do not know the legends surrounding the magic of San Juan.
Already at night, the streets of Santiago are filled with the smell of smoke from the cacharelas. Most people gather in the Zona Vieja, but the bonfires of Pelamios, Vista Alegre or San Lorenzo are also very popular.
San Juan celebrations mix the old and the new, traditions and modernity. They are a night to come together around a fire and have fun with friends and family. It is also a time to join the community at large and to celebrate an ancient tradition.
Have you ever celebrated San Juan? What’s your favorite part of the festivity?