Sardines and Bonfires

Once again it’s time to gather around a bonfire on the beach, eat sardines and celebrate the eve of San Juan, which coincides approximately with Midsummer’s Eve. In the Christian calendar the 24th of June is the feast of St John the Baptist, or as he is known in Spain, San Juan. The shortest night of the year, known as Midsummer’s Eve or the Summer Solstice, is in June but the date varies according to the calendar—this year it falls on June 20th —but it is usually either 20th or 21st June. It has been foremost to pagan worship for centuries. Ancient peoples, for whom the seasons and the fertility of the land were central to their existence, burned fires on that night to symbolise the power of the sun and to help renew its energy.
Many of these old pagan traditions have been handed down and repeated every year. In some regions, if you jump over the bonfire nine times on that evening, it is said that you will be protected from evil spirits. In the Málaga area, three times is sufficient and you will meet the man you’ll marry. Naturally you have to wait until the bonfire has burnt down somewhat before you try to jump over it, otherwise you’ll have worse things to worry about than evil spirits or a forthcoming wedding. ​


Another tradition, especially in the north of Spain, is to collect herbs such as rue, rosemary, fennel and lemon verbena. You can either hang a bunch of them in your doorway or leave them in water for a few hours, and then wash your face in the scented water. This will guarantee you good health for the rest of the year. In coastal areas, women who bathe in the sea on that night are said to become fertile. In Málaga people still like to dip their feet in the sea after midnight to ensure they remain eternally beautiful, or have good luck.
But it’s the line of glowing bonfires that stretches along the beach on that night, that is the most spectacular part of the celebration. In some areas people write their wishes on pieces of paper and burn them; in other parts of Spain they make a huge guy from cloth, sawdust and paper and burn it on the bonfire.
The basic ideas behind these pagan traditions are plain, the herbs and plants are good for your health, fire is a protection against evil spirits and water has a purifying effect.
The reason the Christian church has chosen the Summer solstice as the Feast of St John the Baptist on 24th June, is because John the Baptist was said to be six months older than Jesus. As 25th December was nominated as the birthday of Christ then that made John’s birthday in June. As with many things in the religious calendar, on the eve of San Juan we find a blend of Christian and pagan beliefs.


As for the sardines, well they are definitely good for your health, as they are high in Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are also very plentiful and in June are at their best.
So, I for one, am looking forward to a warm evening on the beach near where I live, eating sardines and watching other people jumping over the bonfires. I might venture down to the sea and wash my feet; after all who knows?

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Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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