There is one international holiday that everyone looks forward to every year. Because this isn’t one that some people celebrate and some don’t, where some people still work and carry on their daily life. San Juan is a day that everyone takes off! In Barcelona the entire city shuts down for the day and heads down to the beach for the biggest annual beach party in Barcelona. What is the reason that once a year everyone heads to the beach and has huge bonfires and shoots fireworks into the sky (apart from the fact that it is great fun!)
When the sun sets on 23 June, also known as Saint John’s Eve as it is is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke states that John was born about six months before Jesus; therefore, the feast of John the Baptist was fixed on 24 June, six months before Christmas Eve. This feast day is one of the very few saints’ days which commemorates the anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of the saint being honored. This day is also around the time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Within Christian theology, this carries significance as John the Baptist was “was understood to be preparing the way for Jesus”, with John 3:30 stating “He must increase, but I must decrease”; this is symbolized in the fact that the “sun begins to diminish at the summer solstice and eventually increases at the winter solstice.” By the 6th century A.D., several churches were dedicated in the honour of Saint John the Baptist and a vigil, Saint John’s Eve, was added to the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, with Christian priests holding three Masses in churches for the celebration.
On the eve of San Juan in Barcelona there are parties all around the city but the biggest one is down by the beach. There is a huge party and people shoot fireworks into the sky all night long. Fire is a big part of San Juan and it is the most typical element associated with the Saint John’s Eve celebration. Different countries around the world celebrate the festival in different ways.
In Croatia, the feast is called Ivanje (Ivan being Croatian for John). It is celebrated on June 23, mostly in rural areas. Festivals celebrating Ivanje are held across the country. According to the tradition, bonfires are built on the shores of lakes, near rivers or on the beaches for the young people to jump over the flames!
The Danes often meet with family and friends to have dinner together. If the weather is good, they then proceed to a local bonfire venue. Here the bonfire with the effigy of a witch on top is lit around 10 pm. Beforehand, a bonfire speech is often made, at large events normally by a well-known person. According to popular belief, St John’s Eve was charged with a special power where evil forces were also at work. People believed that the witches flew past on their broomsticks on their way to the Brocken. To keep the evil forces away, the bonfires were usually lit on high ground. Placing a witch – made of old clothes stuffed with hay – on the bonfire is a tradition which did not become common until the 20th century.
In some rural parts of Ireland, particularly in the north-west, Bonfire Night is held on St. John’s Eve, when bonfires are lit on hilltops. Many towns and cities have “Midsummer Carnivals”, with fairs, concerts and fireworks, around the same time. In County Cork in southwest Ireland the night is commonly referred to as bonfire night and is among the busiest nights of the year for the fire services!
In England each county celebrates in a different way. For example, it is the custom in Yorkshire for every family who had come to live in the parish within the last year to put a table outside their house, on St. John’s Eve, and place on it bread and cheese and beer and offer this to anyone who passed by. Very nice of them indeed!
Estonians celebrate San Juan on the eve of the Summer Solstice with bonfires. On the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, old fishing boats may be burnt in the large pyres set ablaze. In Quebec, Canada, the celebration of St John’s Day was brought to New France by the first French colonists. Great fires were lit at night. According to the Jesuit Relations, the first celebrations of in New France took place around 1638 on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River on the evening of June 23, 1636 with a bonfire and five cannon shots. In 1908, Pope Pius X designated John the Baptist as the patron saint of the French-Canadians.
Hungarians celebrate “Saint Ivan’s Night” Iván derived from the Slavic form of John. The whole month of June was once called Month of St. Ivan until the 19th century. Setting fires is a folklore tradition this night. Girls jumped over it, while boys watched the spectacular! In Italy Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Genoa, Florence and Turin where a fireworks display takes place during the celebration on the river. In Turin Saint John’s cult is also diffused since medieval times when the city stops to work for two days and people from the surroundings comes to dance around the bonfire in the central square.
The traditional midsummer party in Spain is the celebration in honour of San Juan and takes place on the evening of June 23. Bonfires are lit and a set of firework displays usually takes place. On the Mediterranean coast, especially in Catalonia and Valencian Community, special foods, such as Coca de Sant Joan, are also served on this occasion. If you are lucky to be in Barcelona on June 23rd then the beach is the one place you want to be! Special bars with DJs are set up all down the beachfront and the party goes on way into the next day. It is definitely not one to be missed!