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Night of San Juan: bonfires, to help the sun

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Behind the Summer Solstice Last Tuesday, June 21, the days have begun to diminish, and the night, after leaving behind its shortest performance of the year, begins to win the game against clarity in a calm but merciless way.


Precisely in that change of cycle is where the origin of the celebration of the night of San Juan: our ancestors lit bonfires and performed all kinds of rites to help the sun from the moment that, with the solstice, it began to relent in its duel with the darkness of the night, and later came the religious appropriation of that celebration.

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But, then, why do we celebrate this festival linked to the summer solstice always on June 24? The solstice marks the beginning of the astronomical summer, and the exact moment varies from year to year, because the Earth needs 365.2425 days to complete its revolution around the Sun, and not exactly 365 days (every four years a leap year to correct that mismatch).


It was the arrival of Christianity that changed the date of celebration of these rites, since fiction, unlike reality, should not bow to respect for natural laws.

The Church framed the pagan celebration in commemorating the birth of Saint John the Baptist, which the Bible dates to June 24. In addition, the sacred scriptures say that Zacarías, father of Juan, lit a great bonfire to announce the birth of his son, so he continued to have a connection with the fire.

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Bonfire of Saint John in Altsasu. Photo: Fernando Sayas.

Emilio Xabier Duenas Perezfolklorist, ethnographer and member of Eusko Ikaskuntza, explains that “the origin of the celebration is unknown. As far as we know, all of this is a transformation —some will call it evolution- of making a fire on the shortest night of the year. Normally, bonfires were made on June 24, although we have to take into account that centuries ago they were not so clear on what day they lived.

Be that as it may, today the night of San Juan has almost totally requested the religious content, and the main celebration around the fire has as its axis the arrival of summer: many people adopt a new rhythm of life, the school year ends, The hottest weather is coming, the holidays are knocking at the door…

At bonfires, people no longer jump over the fire in order to protect themselves from illness, as was done in the past, according to Dueñas Pérez, and the embers of the fire are no longer used “to spread the ashes over the orchards with the aim of to preserve them from any problem and that they continue to produce benefits and products”.

Dueñas Pérez emphasizes that the rites have been changing. “There is, for example, an almost disappeared rite, documented by us mainly in some parts of Bizkaia, which consisted of lighting several bunches of sheaves of wheat and going around the orchards with burning straw, while doing this spell: San Juan bagilean / denbora ederrean / zapoak eta sugeak erre / artoak eta gariak gorde”.

In addition, the bonfires were once individual, each house lit its own, far from the community fires that today gather their inhabitants around the flames in many Basque municipalities: “San Juan is celebrated in Salvatierra; in Igantzi, where the water has an important presence; in Pasai Donibane, obviously; in Hernani; in Leioa, where they put bouquets with onions and other products from the field on the entrance arches of the baserris to preserve them…”, lists Dueñas Pérez.

“In Tolosa they also do the borden dance and they dance the San Juan Zortzikoa, and in Laguardia they have patron saint festivities. They make processions on June 23 and 24, with the dance group accompanied by a character called katximorro. There are endless traditions linked to San Juan, many of them collected by Juan Garmendia Larrañaga in his two volumes of Summer solstice rites. Feast of Saint John the Baptist”, he concludes.

Bonfire of San Juan in Azpeitia (video, uztarria.eus)

Regardless of the objective, thousands of bonfires will burn again on the night of San Juan in the towns, cities and neighborhoods of Euskal Herria to help the sun illuminate a darkness that invariably begins to win the game. For one night, we can think that the darkness is never total when at least one spark shines, no matter how small.

Source: Eitb

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