Sant Joan 3_738x246
21 Jun 2012 0 comments Lídia Penelo

The verbena of San Joan, a magical ritual

It is one of the most unique celebrations in Catalonia. It happens the night of the 23rd of June, which coincides with the birth of Saint John the Baptist, and marks the summer solstice. A night where the fire becomes the true protagonist, due to pagan traditions that praise life and the sun. It’s a night full of symbolism where, nature, gastronomy, dance and some cleansing rituals merge.

Bonfire in Torredembarra

Bonfires are the backbone of this celebration. According to tradition, it is believed that the fire “purifies” your home if you burn old junk. In the region of central Catalonia however, this purification is also sought out to help their fields. So, they cut down a tree, set it on fire and take it to their town. Or, they do the same with a wheel made of tree branches.

In the town of Artés (county of Bages) you will find one of the most spectacular verbenas in this part of Catalonia. It has it all: The arrival of the Canigó Flame (symbolically the first fire to be lit, which originates a torch relay to light bonfires everywhere else), the correfoc (people dressed as devils who set off fireworks among the crowd), the bonfire and the dance until dawn. Everywhere else you will find versions of this celebration.

The flame of Canigó in Cervera

Probably the most playful thing about this night is the use of firecrackers. Tradition dictates that you ought to make a lot of noise before lighting the fire. Noise scares off evil spirits, apparently.

If you happen to be on a coastal town, most likely the celebration will be on the beach. A widespread belief says that water in general, and specifically the sea, has healing and cleansing properties. As a consequence, many choose to dip in the water at midnight believing their health will be preserved, especially on their skin. “Baño de San Juan, salud para todo el año,” the saying goes. Literally it means that if you bathe the night of St. John’s, you will have a year of good health.

Firebone on the beach

For those who aren’t near the coast, rivers have the same effect. If you don’t feel like going for a swim in the middle of the night, there are other alternatives: To drink water from natural springs or wells, for instance.

The coca de Sant Joan, a sweetened brioche with candied fruit

Like in many celebrations and  festivals in Catalonia there is always some food involved. During the verbena we typically eat the coca de Sant Joan, a sweetened brioche with candied fruit, usually accompanied by a glass of cava, our own champagne.

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