Festivals - The Magical Night of San Juan

San Juan is celebrated with large bonfires on the beach © Michelle Chaplow
Admiring the pre- bonfire artworks © Michelle Chaplow
San Juan

23 June

(eve of San Juan day)

(every year)

Certain festivals seem to summarise life in Spain, with its love of having a good time in the company of friends and loved ones. The Night of San Juan is definitely one of these events. It is a celebration that is usually held on the beach with roaring bonfires, drink, food, and friends. It is a memorable, almost surreal scene and one that needs to be experienced.

The summer solstice remains a magical night in much of the northern hemisphere. Mythology states that strange things can occur on this shortest night of the year. Certain pagan gods, for instance, make themselves visible during this night and we mere humans also give thanks and realise that the seasons of harder times are still to come.

So welcome to the magical night of San Juan. San Juan is all about changes. It is about night and day; fire and water. Fire purifies and water recuperates, refreshes, and rejuvenates.

Bonfires are the theme of the night. Men and women, young people and children all spend time building these bonfires. According to tradition, if people jump over a bonfire three times on San Juan's night, they will be cleansed and purified, and their problems burned away.

San Juan © Michelle Chaplow

In Andalucia, San Juan is celebrated on the night of June 23rd with some towns, such as Almuñécar, in Granada, allowing the beaches to be used as campsites for a single night. On the beaches of Malaga it's common to see people jumping over fires which, according to legend, cleanse the body and the soul. Jumping in the sea at midnight is supposed to be a way to wash away evil spirits.

It is ritual that rules at San Juan. After midnight, for example, people wash their faces and feet three times in order to be granted three wishes and for a happy twelve months thereafter. Bathing at this time is also said to be beneficial for skin complaints. Traditionally, the Spanish did not visit the beach until this day in each year. The sight of hundreds and even thousands of people wandering into the water after midnight with the haze of bonfires everywhere can be close to awe inspiring.

As well as the bonfires that burn continuously, there are also muñecos or dolls that are burnt. This is usually done around midnight. Originally, the effigies were supposed to represent Judas Iscariot but now, the religious relevance seems to have become secondary to the enjoyment factor.

Families gather around the mesmering San Juan bonfires. © Michelle Chaplow
Families gather around the mesmering San Juan bonfires.

In Estepona there has been a competition since the 1970's called 'Quemando los Bigotes de San Juan' (Burning the moustache of San Juan) the moustache is a euphanism for 'bad people' since bandeleros (bandits) often had moustaches.  Quite often the dolls are made up to represent local, national or international personalities who are infamous. Some of the effigies can be quite elaborate. The winning entries are ritually burned on the beach just after midninght. The burning of these effigies is supposed to bring good luck but quite often, it is just good fun and it makes a great spectacle. 

Depending where you experience San Juan, you might find yourself almost entranced by the spectacle. In some places, hundreds upon hundreds of fires dot the coastline. The smell of smoke permeates the air and there is a feeling of camaraderie that crosses age, culture, and background.

So make sure that you reserve the night of June 23rd for La noche de San Juan. Bring plenty to drink, something to eat, carry a sweater if you are going to be near the water, and be prepared to see the sun rise on the morning of the 24th. There are always concerts, music, and other types of entertainment to keep revelers interested all night long, as if watching the beauty of the bonfires were not enough. Purify and enjoy.