Fire and Water: Sant Joan in Barcelona

Curious about the fiery celebrations surrounding Sant Joan in Barcelona? Barcelona is more than just a modern metropolis; it’s also home to a culture that stretches back thousands …

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Curious about the fiery celebrations surrounding Sant Joan in Barcelona? Barcelona is more than just a modern metropolis; it’s also home to a culture that stretches back thousands of years, which opens the city up to a million incredible traditions and festivals, each more exciting than the last. The Sant Joan festival, also known as Nit de Foc, or “night of fire,” is a thrilling combination of fireworks, champagne, and tradition. On June twenty-third, the shortest night of the year, a nonstop party shakes Barcelona to its foundations. Here’s our breakdown on all things Sant Joan in Barcelona.


History

Sant Joan in Barcelona comes with a history as intertwined with superstition and faith as the city itself. Officially, the Catholic Church initially recognized the holiday as a celebration of the birth of John the Baptist (Sant Joan = St. John), nearly six months before the birth of Jesus. This, at least, is where the celebration gets its name. Really, the Revetlla de Sant Joan holiday began with celebrating the summer equinox as part of a pagan tradition. The customs associated with the party combine both Christian and pagan traditions, including songs, dances, cures, herbs, midnight swims in the sea, and the idea of fire as purification and light. The night of June twenty-third is a long one filled with music and tradition; the twenty-fourth is an official holiday to honor St. John. The city’s unique mix of cultures ensures that Sant Joan in Barcelona is always a unique celebration.


Traditions

Years ago, it was believed that taking a midnight swim during the Nit de Foc could cure illnesses, and so people crowded into the sea long after dark. Now, the celebration happens on the beach! Barcelona’s beautiful Mediterranean beaches are crowded with excited revellers until the early hours of the morning. Mostly, they avoid going into the water, but you never know: sometimes a quick dip in the sea late at night is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Perhaps the most important part of the festival is linked to fire. While we tend to think of fire as something destructive, Sant Joan reminds us that fire does a great deal more: it’s a symbol of purity and survival, of light and heat. While bonfires sprout all throughout the city, modern citizens have found a new way to celebrate: fireworks. For days before the celebration, fireworks will be sold in dozens of stores all over the city, just in time for people to let them off all night long. Watching the brightly-colored lights and loud bangs magnifies the elated rush of the city as everyone delights in being heard. Sometimes, people even write down sins or wishes and burn the paper, symbolically putting the wish out into the world or else cleansing themselves from past bad behavior.

Sant Joan in Barcelona would not be complete without revetlles, or street parties. Communities gather to listen to live music, share what’s going on in their lives, and eat coca de Sant Joan, a special cake peppered with dried fruits, pine nuts, or sugar. If you want to join the festivities, many neighborhoods have set up chairs and tables outside for everyone to enjoy a picnic. Just be sure to bring some coca and some cava and you’ll have a wonderful time!

The newest tradition is maybe the most thrilling. In 1955, a poet in Catalunya Nord read an epic poem mentioning fires on Canigó Mountain for the Sant Joan feast. Inspired, he decided to light a fire on top of the mountain and carry it down the hill, using the fire from the first bonfire to light all the other fires in the region. In 1966, the Canigó flame was used to ignite the Sant Joan fire. Now, over 3,000 bonfires are lit every year from the same flame! Every year, the flame is carried down from the mountain and into Barcelona, where representatives from various neighborhoods and villages bring torches back to light their own official bonfires from this mystical flame.


Where to Celebrate

The exhilarating evening begins at 7:30 p.m. in Plaça de Sant Jaume, when the Canigó flame arrives in one of the largest plazas in the city. Fireworks will pop overhead and people will cheer as the fire is distributed to waiting representatives, who carry it back to their neighborhoods however they can. Bands play traditional music and officials give speeches about unity. Then, once the flame has been delivered, the rest of the night is a nonstop party.

The most popular place to celebrate Sant Joan in Barcelona is, without a doubt, the beach. You can stroll down through the city and toward the water, where you’ll find a mass of cheerful, excited citizens enjoying fireworks displays, quick swims, and picnics by the water! It’s a wonderful way to experience this incredible holiday.

If you’d prefer not to get sandy, there are other alternatives that are equally as exciting. As you explore the city, you will find tables set up outside near the bonfires, perfect for someone who needs a place to sit down and eat! If you’d prefer to find a discotheque or a restaurant instead, many will be open and full of people ready to party.

Have you ever experienced Sant Joan in Barcelona? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: -Jeffrey- via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

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