Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

San Juan
Midsummer Day in Ibiza
Fiesta Day Celbrated 24th June

Saints & Fiestas

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.

Pagan Roots

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 at night.

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!

Happy Days

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.

Bah, Humbug!

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 joyful time.

¡Viva La Alegría!

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.

Fruit Galore

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.

Emily Kaufman