The Daily Prosper
How the Eve of Saint John the Baptist is celebrated around the world

How the Eve of Saint John the Baptist is celebrated around the world

The Eve of Saint John the Baptist (or Midsummer's Eve), is one of the festivities most celebrated around the world for its magic and the large number of followers it gains every year. This is originally a pagan feast which, with the arrival of Christianity, left aside its supposed heresy and started to honour the arrival of the son of Zacharias, one of the best-known passages of the holy scripts.

A magic night in which the air is impregnated with the smell of firewood and the distant murmuring of thousands of voices asking for their dreams to come true. The holy side of the feast is mixed with the pagan, despite the religious charge given to the Eve of St John.

The pagan, and allegedly unfaithful side of the feast, is an answer to a romance between the sun and the earth. Every 23 June, the lovers bade farewell while the mortals welcomed in the summer solstice once more. They asked for a wish, a bonfire was lit in purification and they danced till sunup.

However, with the arrival of Christianity, the celebration of this magic Eve of St John became a much more merciful feast. According to the Gospels, on this night of June, Zacharias, a server of the Temple of Jerusalem, witnessed the birth of his son “The prophet of the Almighty” John the Baptist, although his wife Isabel was unable to conceive. The father thankfully ordered a bonfire to be lit to celebrate the arrival of the “last prophet” and to announce his arrival to his relatives.

Whatever the case, whether it is of pagan origin or holy, this night has hundreds of followers who embrace friendship and wait for the good news. During this night, the shortest night of the year, the inhabitants of several points of the world hope that the fire will take away what is bad and bring only good. Wishes are made and the superstition is fulfilled so that luck remains alive until the following year.

A night that takes away the bad and brings the good

The festivity is widely celebrated around the world, although each region obviously has its own particularities. One of the most curious traditions is that of Porto (Portugal); the most famous wine city of the world prepares a series of activities in the streets to enjoy good food and look for good luck. Thousands of people go out to dance at street parties and to watch the fireworks from the Ponte Dom Luis.

However, none of them forget the essential accessory of the night. Everyone carries toy hammers in their hand to hit each other and to augur well. As a curious detail, the Portuguese of yesteryear also carried leeks and garlic leaves to arouse the spirits and make them bring positive energy.

In Finland, everywhere is filled with flowers to welcome in the summer and to honour nature at the same time. The urbanites celebrate the Eve of St John, but they leave the city as tradition sends the families to spend the day among the trees and to enjoy a good barbecue. To finish, they build large bonfires near the lakes, which are called kokko, to ask above all for success in love.

In Latvia the feast in honour of St John the Baptist is also celebrated with great banquets. From the afternoon until nightfall, the Latvians dance to the sound of popular songs but, like the Finnish, make an ode to nature amongst the shadows. Without exception, they all wear crowns and garlands of wild flowers in their hair, which at the end of the evening, they throw into the fire to leave the bad thoughts behind and to purify the new year.

Spain: land of great tradition

Back in Spain, the feast of St John is very successful above all on the east coast, in Catalonia and the north of the Iberian peninsula. In Alicante this traditional summer night has been declared of International Tourist Interest, and is naturally celebrated with crowds enjoying the city streets. Dances, music and fireworks accompany the burning of cardboard and wood monuments like those of the Fallas in Valencia, which at the end of the night will fall foul to the flames.

In Tarragona, the people organise popular street parties and succulent dinners under the stars, waiting for sunrise amidst laughter and friends. The tradition of the people of Tarragona is quite different from those of the rest of the Iberian peninsula; they light fires with the well-known ‘Flama del Canigó’, a flame brought from the peak of the Canigó mountain in the Pyrenees. This flame, beyond the Eve of St John, is also of great symbolism for the Catalans as it is closely linked to the vitality of the region’s culture.

In Corunna (Galicia) this special and superstitious evening is given a special welcome on Orzán beach. The chumminess spreads freely while the flames consume the bonfires and old stories are told. The people of Corunna spend the whole night awake eating sardines and potatoes roasted with brona bread. Of course to faithfully fulfil tradition, it is important to jump over the fire three times asking for a wish when hardly the embers remain. 

And finally, in the region of Asturias, and specifically in Mieres, they also have a curious way to celebrate this special night. All of the fountains in the area are decorated with floral offerings, and as night falls, they celebrate what is known as ‘cargüeña’, a stage representation of how the people came with the firewood and the worn cloths to the Town Hall Square to light a large bonfire. At midnight, after the proverbial fireworks, the people of Mieres join hands by their little fingers and dance around the fire singing the popular romance ‘¡Ay!  Un galán de esta villa’. [Oh, a suitor from this town].

Wherever you might be, the Eve of St John is a night for everyone to remember.