Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 San Juan



San Juan

The 24th June recalls the birthday, six months before that of Jesus, of one of the Christian faith's most important saints, John the Baptist. However, the eve of this day is marked in Nerja and many other places in Spain by perhaps the least religious, certainly one of the noche de an juannoisiest and most bacchanalian festivals of the whole year. The night of the 23rd coinicides more or less with the summer solstice and traditionally heralds the arrival of summer. Consequently all sorts of folklore, legends and superstitions are attached to it, with doors supposedly opening to the sprirt world , and to enchanted caves and castles.

In Nerja the festival has changed a great deal. In the old days, nobody used to go to the beach until the day of San Juan, and would not go again until the waters had been blessed by the Virgen del Carmen in July. In recent years, the celebrations on the night before have become increasingly popular. Here, as elsewhere, two elements of profound symbolic and practical importance come together as people congregate around blazing fires not far from the water's edge.

Both elements, fire and water, are associated with purification, and burning branches from the fires of San Juan, or the ashes thereof, are used in many places in ceremonies designed to ward off plagues and other infirmities. The waters of this night, meanwhile, are believed to help with skin complaints and to provide a more general cleansing of body and soul, which is why, at midnight, there is a mad rush across the sand into the sea, and why people will be making silent wishes as the waters cover them.

juasLooking back from the water, you will see a beach ablaze with light from a hundred bonfires, all conspiring to banish darkness and paying their tribute to the sun. The biggest fire on the beach reminds us rather of November 5th in the UK, for on its top stands a figure dressed in old clothes, a bogeyman that in Britain would be called Guy Fawkes, but here goes by the name of 'Júas', (though the final 's' is in typical local style usually silent) and supposedly represents that greatest of all traitors, Judas. He goes up in flames, needless to say, fireworks are set off and the party continues all night, with plenty of loud music to accompany it. It's the one night when you can camp on the beach, so tents sprout up everywhere and are a useful refuge for the young when they need a little privacy.

Excess alcohol can meanwhile be soaked up by eating chewy pieces of 'torta de San Juan', the aniseedy, sugary bread made at this time of year. Those that stay awake until dawn are said, in some places at least, to be rewarded by the sight of the sun having a little dance.

The next day the celebrations continue, with families having barbecues or picnics and everywhere the air smells of roasting sardines. This combination of beach party and barbecue is known as a 'moraga' in Andalucía. Often the sardines are impaled onto sharpened pieces of cane called 'espetos', which are set into mounds of sand on the leeward side of the fire, the theory being that they cook in the heat but not the smoke.

Elsewhere in Spain, the celebrations may last several days, and apart from the bonfires, there will typically be bull baiting or running, cattle fairs, folk dancing, and maybe scary 'gigantes y cabezudos', people dressed as giants or figures with enormous heads. In some places they even have barefoot firewalking. If it should happen to rain, however, it is considered the worst possible omen: "'Agua por San Juan, quita aceite, vino y pan"
which is to say that rain is a disaster at this time of year for the olive, grape and wheat crops.

San JuanWhat of the saint himself? His father, Zacharias, was a priest, his mother, Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary, but the couple had long given up hope of conceiving a child until the Archangel Gabriel came with the good news that Elizabeth was pregnant. Zacharias rather rashly expressed some doubt that this could be possible and was struck dumb for his pains. When Elizabeth later met Mary, by then pregnant herself with Jesus, it is reported that John 'lept in his mother's womb'. Zacharias recovered the power of speech when John was born, and he lit fires to honour the occasion and announce it to the world.

As an adult John became a hermit, 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness' as he described himself, and lived a penitential life eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching of the imminent coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. To prepare for this he demanded that people should repent of their sins and be cleansed by baptism, which John carried out in the River Jordan. Thus it was that he met and baptised his cousin Jesus, of whom he proclaimed, 'Behold the lamb of God: behold him who takes away the sins of the world'.

John's downfall came when he denounced the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, who was his half-brother's ex-wife and also his own niece. It was she who had Herod arrest John, and, of course, it was her daughter, Salome, who asked for his head on a plate as her prize for dancing for Herod.

old-churchTwo haunting places in Spain bear witness to John the Baptist's status here. If we travel north to the little town of Baños de Cerrato a few miles south of Palencia we will find Spain's oldest church, the tiny Visigothic basilica of San Juan Bautista. This was built in the seventh century by King Recesvinto, who stopped one day at the village following a campaign in the Basque Country. He was suffering from a kidney complaint, and drank the waters from a local spring. Finding himself cured, he attributed his good fortune to a miracle by John the Baptist, and built this church in his honour.

John also left his mark, literally so the legend goes, in the form of a footprint at a little chapel called San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a windswept and atmospheric place of miracles and pilgrimage. It is to be found on a remote peninsula, surrounded by dangerous rocks, near Bermeo on the Biscay coast with its only connection to the mainland a steep line of stone steps. The chapel has long been a significant landmark for Basque fishermen, its bell tolling to warn of approaching storms. As you contemplate this bleak, wave-lashed promontory, it's hard to imagine a stronger contrast with the revels held in John's name back in Nerja and elsewhere.

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