and many happy returns! Today is the Eve of San Juan, one of the oldest and most
fondly held fiestas in the Ibicenco calendar. In fact, in days of yore, this red-letter
day was celebrated with far greater fervour than Christmas. Even in modern times,
the fact that the rest of the planet is hurdling headlong into the space age makes
no difference whatsoever. In Ibiza, tradition is tradition, and the past must
The contagious effervescence that comes each
year at San Juan has been building irrepressibly all week. From the tiniest hamlets
to the biggest towns, sensible folk have been engaging in a final spring clean,
gathering together all manner of burnables for the great fire. Meanwhile, sassy
kids have been setting off bangers in the streets to let us know the big event
What's all the fuss about? Our answer, of course,
can be found in history.
Eve of San Juan falls on the 23rd of June, coinciding almost exactly with the
summer solstice - the celestial event that is, in fact, the numen behind the whole
affair. To understand the source of this nominally Catholic holiday, we must travel
back to the time when churches were caves and altars were trees.
is an acknowledged fact that when Christian ecclesiasts began to implant their
holy days, they chose already existing pagan feasts and simply substituted one
ideology for another. The solstices were invariably the two most highly observed
days in the year by all of Europe's pre-Christian religions.
reason behind their importance was that these times marked a shift in the balance
between day and night, so that, for a short time, the sun seemed to pause in the
sky before continuing on its course. This pause marked a turning point, after
which, days began either to grow in length or to decrease in length, depending
on which portion of the elliptic was in question.
In the case of San Juan, the day force finally
reaches its maximum expression of power and light, a feat that never failed to
inspire the nature-worshipping cultures of yesteryear. In fact, during the weeks
surrounding the summer solstice, Ibiza enjoys nearly 17 hours of sunlight all
told. First light begins to creep into the sky at about 5 o'clock in the morning
and does not fade until 10 o'clock at night.
this culmination of solar strength, islanders down through the centuries would
light huge, nocturnal bonfires in honour of the celestial affluence.
today, these blazes are quite awe-inspiring, but if one imagines quondam Ibiza,
when light at night was practically a non-occurrence, it is easy to see how the
San Juan fires came to assume wizardly proportions in island mentality.
Old, Something New
The main symbolic significance of
the fires is that of renewal and release. Everybody present at the bonfires throws
in something old in order to make room for the new. For example, if old shoes
are thrown in, it means the supplicant wants to walk a new path in life.
As in the Beltane rites of Celtic societies, the San Juan fiesta is imbued with
all sorts of magical associations. There are incantations and superstitions enough
to fill a book, and anyone interested in these homespun conjurings can . . . do
his own research!
above all else, for the islanders of yore, San Juan was a happy time. The trees
were full of fruit, the crops were in the fields, the sea was calm for fishing,
and life was plentiful. The weather was lovely and warm, a fact which made San
Juan an outdoor festival, a time when everybody came out of their homes to sing
and dance and make merry.
the other hand, Christmas (which falls at the opposite winter solstice) was always
a sombre time. The weather was cold, the sea was too rough for fishing, and the
trees and fields were barren. Probably due to the fact that yesteryear's peasants
were too poor to give presents, there was a corresponding poverty in Christmas
tradition. For example, the only Christmas carols were slow, tuneless songs that
were sung in church, never by people in their homes. Christmas trees and decorations
were also non-existent, and the inclement weather made folk stay inside, except
to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
to sound overly cynical, Midnight Mass was a long, lugubrious affair, the happiest
part of which was when everybody could at last walk home, huddled together for
warmth and singing common folk songs to ward off evil spirits. In short, Christmas
in Ibiza was, for the most part, a quiet and not especially joyful time.
The real fun was at San Juan when
the living was so much easier. Remember, too, that until the advent of tourism
- barely forty years ago - people in Ibiza lived almost exclusively off the land.
The veneration of saints and solstices apart, Mother Nature in full bloom was
the real cause for celebration.
you happen to be on the island, don't forget to try the delicious 'San Juan fruit'.
This denomination refers to any of the varieties of small fruit that ripen at
this time of the year. Three of the most common types are tiny pears, apricots
and 'brevas', (elongated black figs). The round, green figs, incidentally,
do not ripen until late August.
year should see a particularly good turnout for the fires, as big night falls
on a Saturday. The most elaborate celebrations take place in the village of San
Juan itself, although many other towns also organize bonfires and accompanying
entertainment. By the way, all fires are lit at the stroke of midnight. See you
next week, when, hopefully, we have all been renewed and released.