Salutations 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 be honoured.
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 is near.
What's all the fuss about? Our answer, of course, can be found in history.
The 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.
It 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.
The 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.
Rites of Fire
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
To symbolize this culmination of solar strength, islanders down through the
centuries would light huge, nocturnal bonfires in honour of the celestial affluence.
Even 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.
Something 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!
But, 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.
On 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.
Without trying 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
íViva La AlegrÝa!
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.
If 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.
This 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.