Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
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 noisiest
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.