San juan festival history: Hogueras de San Juan | Bonfires of Saint John

The Story Behind the Festival of San Juan and the Correfoc

Correfoc celebrations I © Aina Vidal/Flickr

Leon Beckenham

10 July 2017

For one night in Spain‘s island of Mallorca, pagan, Christian and mystical tradition come together in an electric melting pot for the festival of San Juan. Here we share the story behind the traditions, as well as what to expect if you’re in town for the festivities.

The festival of San Juan (Sant Joan in Catalan) or St John the Baptist, is one of the bigger annual festivals celebrated on Mallorca. Originating in pre-Christian ritual, it aligns with the summer solstice of the Northern Hemisphere. It takes place on the shortest night of the year, usually around June 20-24, and symbolises the triumph of light over dark.

It is celebrated throughout Spain, adopting particular celebrations dependent on where you are. For example in Menorca, black horses ride through the streets, while in Alicante it is their most important festival of the year, and people burn old furniture on street bonfires. Wherever you are, there is a running theme based on legends, tradition and magical ritual that include fire, water and the sun.

It was believed that the fires of San Juan would kill off any bad spirits still lurking in the dark and even cure disease. Fire was also considered to cleanse the soul, and water to recuperate it. Tradition dictated that if people jumped over a bonfire three times on the feast of San Juan night, they would be cleansed and purified, and their problems would be burnt away.

People also considered the shortest night of the year to be when pagan gods were closest to humans, and as such paranormal events were more likely to take place. It was also believed to be a night of heightened superstition – so if you wanted to be lucky in the year ahead, you’d have to jump over one of the bonfires, burn something old to release bad spirits, wash your face in the sea, river or lake, or go for a swim after midnight to purify the body and soul.

In present-day Mallorca you can enjoy festivities on the beach or in town, where you’ll find bonfires and people dressed in white, burning ceremonial candles, enjoying food together and generally partying the night away.

As San Juan is the patron saint of four Mallorcan towns – Deià, Manacor de la Vall, Muro and Son Servera – in these spots you’ll find more extensive celebrations over the whole week, sometimes even longer.

In Palma de Mallorca, the public holiday is preceded by Nit de Foc (‘Night of Fire’), which includes one of the more ritualistic traditions called the Correfoc, or Fire Run. This is an additional Catalonian tradition which accompanies a few festivals throughout the year such as the Fiesta de San Sebastian (the patron saint of Palma) in January every year. It can take many forms, but is always based around the use of fire and fireworks used in symbolic ritual of good versus evil.

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In Palma de Mallorca the festivities take place in Parc del Mar below the Cathedral. A child-friendly event runs earlier in the evening and is a chance for children to get dressed up as little devils to conduct their own parade, while the later, post-watershed version takes place at 10pm.

Under the cloak of darkness, masked devils and horrifying-looking creatures holding pitchforks and sticks of fire charge towards the crowd, accompanied by a soundtrack of tribal drumming from the devilish-looking percussion band. Historically, this was a chance for valiant young men to show their bravery by jumping the flames coming from the devils. Nowadays, young men head into the hubbub among the devils and demons to jump the sparks being launched towards their feet, first making sure to be fully covered from head to toe as protection from injury.

It’s a celebration unique to Hispanic culture, a celebration you’ll be hard to find in more safety conscious countries(!) and something – if you find yourself in Mallorca at the right time – certainly not to be missed.

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What is celebrated on the night of San Juan?

The night of Thursday, June 23 is perhaps the most anticipated night of the year for dozens of young Spaniards from the cities of the Mediterranean coast — Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Alicante, and more — who have finished the school year and are looking forward to celebrating the arrival of Summer and vacations.  

The night of June 23 to 24 is the so-called ‘verbena de San Juan,’ a celebration that traditionally features large bonfires, firecrackers and fireworks after an outdoor dinner, in which there is no lack of cava or the so-called coca de San Juan — a sweet cake covered with candied fruit and pine nuts. After dinner, young people or anyone who likes the night, flood the bars and dance in clubs and continue celebrating until dawn. 

The origin of this festival goes back to pagan festivals that celebrated the Summer solstice. However, the Summer solstice takes place on the night of June 21, while St. John’s Day falls on the night of the 23 to the 24. This difference likely has religious reasons, as it coincides to when St. John the Baptist was born according to the Bible.

The celebration of the night of St. John is accompanied by rituals, superstitions and traditions. Some have been lost over time, but others are still carried out to this day, such as making bonfires to burn away bad memories and make wishes for the coming year. In some places, the tradition is to jump over fires and bonfires to avoid ailments and bring luck. The most romantic tradition of all is bathing in the sea during the night of San Juan to find a partner.

In the coastal cities of the Spanish Mediterranean it is common to light bonfires in the main square and burn objects and old clothes from the year before sitting at the dinner table. It is also common to take a night dip in the sea, not only to find a partner, but also to get lucky. The beach becomes the center of amusement, with the beach bars open until the wee hours of the morning and the fireworks shows lighting up the dark night sky. 

One of the biggest Midsummer Night celebrations in the Mediterranean is the one celebrated in Ciutadella, on the island of Menorca. The tradition is seven centuries old, and began when Sant Joan was celebrated with a pilgrimage. A group of workers would travel the road from Ciutadella to the hermitage of Sant Joan de Missa on the back of their horses collecting donations.

Nowadays, the festival consists of riders traveling through the streets of the town, and crowds of people gather to watch the horses rear up on their hind legs. 

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In Andalusia and the Canary Islands, it is typical to burn a rag doll in an act called «quemar el Juan.» During the burning, wishes for a better future are cast. 
In other regions, such as Asturias and Galicia, the celebration is also linked to water, a much tamer element than bonfires and firecrackers in times of drought due to climate change. Tonight will be one of maximum alert for firefighters and emergency services. Authorities have asked citizens to be cautious. In most regions, it is forbidden to throw firecrackers and fireworks outside of permitted places to avoid fires.

In Latin America the night of San Juan places the Devil as the protagonist. According to legend, it is the night when the Devil is loose and the lands are blessed by St. John the Baptist. In some places, very early in the morning, many people wash their hair and faces with the blessed waters and repeat the phrase: «San Juan, San Juan, give me milcao, I will give you bread,» three times.

In Puerto Rico, the Night of San Juan is also the official patronal feast of the capital city. Countless rituals are performed to «get rid of bad luck,» such as lying on your back on the beach seven times at midnight, bathing on your back, or bathing with flowers. The Night of San Juan has become a village party, where people celebrate with music, dancing, food and drinks. As midnight approaches, the beaches become crowded with people anxiously waiting for the time to jump into the sea and perform the aforementioned ritual. 

In Colombia, for example, the celebration is centered in the departments of Tolima, Huila and Caquetá, where peasants celebrate San Juan Bautista as an omen for the prosperity of  especially rice crops. 

In Cuba, the celebration is more carnival-like. In Camagüey the traditional «fiesta de San Juan» is a colorful and active carnival that began to be celebrated in 1725, and coincides with the time when cattle ranchers took their cattle to the city to sell. At that time, a fair was organized with horse competitions and the like that began on June 24 with the festivities of St. John’s Day. Time went by and the fairs became annual, and as more events and activities were added, people began to participate more, adding costumes and more entertainment.

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There is nothing better than a religious holiday celebrated to the sound of hammers

Festival in 2017. Amazing experience

Close-up of a man with a homemade hammer bomb

Just before the sapper bomb went off

Super Bomb

Every February, for centuries, the locals of a small Mexican town have organized a grand celebration unlike any other in the world. Unfortunately, many participants leave these holidays with unpleasant souvenirs, and here we are not talking about some unconvincing story about someone drinking too much. Rather, we are talking about real scars from shrapnel wounds. They call it «Exploding Hammer Festival».

Back in the 17th century, the town’s namesake, affectionately known as «San Juanito», became involved in a battle with the area’s wealthy landowners. Because the man had a penchant for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, he earned himself a reputation as the «Mexican Robin Hood.» Further on, the details get a little blurry: the celebration of the modern day in San Juan de la Vega is a reenactment of the gunfight between San Juanito and the local dons. Which side possessed the original bomb hammers is forever hidden in the haze of history. However, the celebration of the conflict is still celebrated every year during Lent. The whole action looks very incendiary.

In short, the weapons of choice for revelers are still explosive hammers thrown by living people. The participants of the holiday modernized this tradition. They use home fireworks tied to the end of a sledgehammer. Each participant strikes a sheet of metal with their hammer, exploding a salute to everyone’s delight (although sometimes the shockwave causes the brave young lad to fly himself into the air like a rag doll). Members, one after the other, test their hammers from morning to evening…or until something truly catastrophic happens in the crowd.

San Juan de la Vega is considered one of the most dangerous festivals in the world because of the huge number of accidents. Suffice it to look at the statistics: 17 spectators were slightly injured in 2007, while the following year 50 spectators were hit by firecrackers when a contestant hit the hammer from the wrong angle.

For what it’s worth, events like this have been held every year for over 400 years. There are doctors and police everywhere, ready to deal with the inevitable. Tens of thousands of people come here to demonstrate their skills. Of course, all this looks hilarious and, undoubtedly, dangerous, but the chances of earning a serious wound here, in fact, according to statistics, are not very high.

Good to know

The festival starts around 9:00 am and continues until 3:00 pm. There isn’t much room to stay in this sleepy little town, so it’s easiest to find a room in the nearby town of Selaya. Don’t forget to bring earplugs, eye protection (sunglasses are enough), and something to cover your mouth. When it comes to ear or eye protection, it’s just common sense, but mouth protection is a must. A bandage is needed to block the entry of sulfur vapor into the lungs. They are on fire and are perhaps the most annoying part of the festival. The locals use bandanas.

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One way or another throughout Spain, the feast of St. John the Baptist, Ivan Kupala — «San Juan» — is celebrated with lights, smoke and roar of firecrackers, colorful processions and other interesting traditions.

This very popular summer holiday is celebrated on June 24, and the most interesting, spectacular, mass and noisy events are concentrated on the Mediterranean coast.

In Catalonia it is called «Nit de Foc», which means «Fiery Night».

Spaniards attach great importance to the summer solstice — the shortest night of the year. If you find yourself at this time in Barcelona or any other city of Catalonia, then you will not miss this holiday — bonfires in the streets and constant bursts of firecrackers will remind you of it!

On the feast of St. John the Baptist — «San Juan» remember the pagan tradition of expelling evil spirits with the help of sacred fire and ritual dances. On this night, the sardana is necessarily performed in the squares — a traditional Catalan dance of joy and brotherhood, in which anyone can take part. On this night, according to legend, miracles happen, the water in the springs acquires healing properties, and the lucky ones manage to find a flowering fern, under which, as you know, a treasure is buried. We don’t know if the Spaniards are looking for fern flowers and where exactly it blooms, but on the beaches (where they are) and on city squares you can see a lot of fires, through which the most desperate revelers jump.

Celebrations are held annually on the night of June 23 to June 24 (and in some places the fun lasts for several days).

History of the holiday

The feast of St. John the Baptist — «San Juan» — marks the beginning of summer. You may already know that in Spain summer officially begins exactly according to the celestial calendar — on the day of the summer solstice, June 21st. This longest day of the year was endowed with special properties in pagan cultures. The point is that on the day of the solstice, the sun reaches its highest point above the horizon before it begins its decline — the turn towards winter. The sun is considered a symbol of fertility and wealth, so people burn bonfires — small suns — and arrange fireworks — albeit small, but also fiery — all over the city. Ancient people knew that it is fire that protects against epidemics, gives warmth, helps to cook food, drives away predators and illuminates the night, driving away evil spirits of darkness.

At midnight, bonfires are lit, and folk fun begins — jumping over the fire, and then swimming in the sea or other body of water.

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