At midnight on the 23rd June the coast of Andalucía, indeed the coast around the whole of Spain, will twinkle with the light from hundreds of bonfires
Thousands of people will be jumping into the sea and, on some beaches, effigies of infamous characters will be burnt. There will be bands and concerts, fireworks and food and drink all night until the sun rises.
This is the night of San Juan. During pagan times it was the shortest night, the summer solstice. In those far off times it was not a celebration, for the night portends the start of winter. It was a time of sacrifice and feasting to please the gods who returned the favour at the winter solstice on the 22nd December by having the sun, once again, start to rise earlier and set later. It was a time of change and purification. Fire and water, hot and cold, night and day.
In Spain today, many people will not enter the sea to bathe until after the summer solstice. Hence the multitude that invade the waves at midnight. As the bonfires reduce in size and intensity, the younger generations leap over and through the flames in symbolic acts of purification. Older and wiser people stay at the water’s edge and wash themselves three times. They will be granted three wishes and have a happy twelve months.
On some beaches, effigies will be put to the flame. Originally, as pagans turned into Christians, the effigy represented Judas Iscariot. Estepona run a competition for the best effigy called, ‘Quemando los Bigotes de San Juan’, (‘Burning the moustache of San Juan’). Bigotes is a euphemism for the bandoleros that plagued the area until the mid 20th Century. In Andalucía particularly, the effigies started to represent infamous local or national personalities, a brave thing to do in the Franco days.
On some beaches the bonfires have contemporary political or historical relevance. Sabinillas is famous for its San Juan comments with bonfires looking like stage sets. Subjects have been the author Cervantes, pirates, film stars, and in 2018, circus clowns including Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Interestingly, the summer solstice first occurred on the 23rd June in 92 AD and last occurred on that date in 279 AD which may give some indication of just how long this festival has been celebrated. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the summer solstice occurs sometime between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and will continue to do so until 2492 AD when it slips back to the 19th June.