On a typical summer day in southern Spain, it’s the many hours of bright, beaming sunlight that attract people to the beautiful beaches and earns Spain’s Mediterranean coast its nickname as La Costa del Sol (The Sun’s Coast). On June 23rd, however, it’s the nightfall that draws hoards of people to the sand and sea in anticipation of the night of San Juan festivities.
When my friend first invited me to celebrate with her, I had no idea what San Juan was all about. It was, however, described to me as an all-night party on the beach, and I figured there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with that, so off we went.
We got to the beach with only a few hours of sunlight to spare, and I was surprised by the huge number of people still there. As the sun went down, the crowd grew even more and soon enough there wasn’t an empty spot left on the beach. Little by little when the sun could no longer light up the beach, bonfires big and small sparked up all over the coast.
That’s when the traditions and the party started.
People all over the beach broke out their portable grills and choice of meat alongside a good amount of beer and liquor. There was some music and dancing but mostly just people enjoying the company of their friends and family while barbequing and sitting around the bonfire.
I thought the bonfires were just for keeping warm and illuminating the area a little bit, until I saw a man jump over his bonfire. Then another man jumped from one side of the bonfire to the other and nearly landed in the flames. At first I thought it was just one crazy group of friends daring each other to take the risk of third degree burn or forever be labeled as a chicken, but then I saw a woman at another bonfire do the same thing. I looked all around me and suddenly realized that people everywhere were jumping over their bonfires. I asked my friend what was going on and all she could do was shrug and say, “It’s a tradition!”
Luckily my group didn’t participate in that San Juan tradition. Call me a chicken if you will, but I was neither prepared nor willing to take the risk of tripping and falling into the fire. According to my friends, every year there is always a story on the news of a drunken person or just someone with a slight lack of coordination falling into a bonfire while trying to jump over it. I was not going to be that person.
There was another tradition I was willing to participate in though: the midnight swim. With a few minutes to go before the clock struck 12, my friends and I stripped down to our bathing suits and got ready to jump into what I knew was going to be very cold water. As we stood on the sand, right at the edge of where the water stopped rolling in, I asked her again, “Why are people doing this?” If I was going to take a dip into that freezing Mediterranean water I wanted to know why! I got the same answer as before: a shrug and the words “It’s a tradition!” This time she added, “It’s for good luck… I guess.”
With that great explanation in mind, I braced myself for the cold and went running into the water. There was no going at this slowly. I would’ve never made it all the way in otherwise. As I suspected, the water was ridiculously cold. We only lasted about 30 seconds before running back out, but it was an exhilarating 30 seconds that jump-started the party for the rest of the night. There were fireworks, drinks, card games, dancing and eating. In typical Spanish style, we partied until the sun came up.
When we finally called it a quits and headed home, I was beyond exhausted. I was tired enough to take an hour-long nap around 2 a.m. despite all the noise of the partygoers, but it wasn’t enough to fully recharge my batteries. I managed to have one last coherent thought before falling asleep for the car ride home: I still don’t really know what San Juan is all about!
Between a little help from another friend who is a history and Spanish traditions expert and my other friend Google who is an expert on everything, I was finally able to answer my own question. Although San Juan festivities happen a few days after the summer solstice takes place on June 21st, it is linked to pagan holidays celebrating the official start of summer. The fire is said to represent a purification and burning away of the old and negative parts of a person’s life, while the water represents a rebirth. For those who can’t find their way to the beach on the night of San Juan even jumping in a pool, showering or washing the face at midnight is symbolic enough.
In other parts of Spain, especially the inland communities, they have developed other traditions to mark the special holiday, but they all somehow involve fire and water. There are even other European countries such as Portugal, Norway and Denmark who celebrate the night of San Juan and also many South American countries including Brazil and Argentina.
So if you find yourself in one of these countries that celebrates the night of San Juan, don’t hesitate to take part in the festivities, and unlike me you will have at least a slight idea as to what it’s all about beforehand.