A Coruña, Spain — The Bonfires of San Xoån (or Hogueras de San Juan in Spanish) is a big deal — a really big deal.
Held every year on the night of June 23, it is one of the biggest festivals of the year. It coincides with the summer solstice, another example of a pagan festival being co-opted by the Christians as part of their efforts of conversion — think Christmas and Easter, both of which were existing pagan festivals that were later Christianized.
This year San Xoån, which nominally celebrates John the Baptist, drew an estimated 150,000 people to the beaches of A Coruña in Galicia, a region in the Northeast of Spain. Considering A Coruña’s population is approximately 250,000, one can get a sense of the popularity of the event.
Street vendors sell cooked sardines — a local delicacy — as well as various meats, from road-side grills. It is equivalent to Southeast Texas’ links sales or New York hot dog carts. The fish are prepared, like most seafood in this region, fairly simply. Just a quick grill in olive oil. The fish carries it’s own flavor so why hide it.
By early morning of June 23, people were already camped out on the beach to reserve their spots for the bonfires, with groups taking shifts to hold on to an area of the beach around 12-feet square. While there is a large ceremonial bonfire in the center of the beach, the main point is to build one’s own. The city supplies wood and people line up to get their free planks — as much as each individual can carry across their outstretched arms seems to be the general rule — and build their circular pyramids. Throughout the day we saw groups of young people carrying all manner of wood to the beach, from wooden pallets to old chairs and even the remnants of a large, ornate table.
Other groups take the bonfires a little more seriously, building two-story structures with hammer and nails. The atmosphere throughout the day is jovial and there is a palpable sense of anticipation.
The sun doesn’t set until around 10:30 p.m. at this time of the year, so, apart from a few early starters, the wooden tours stand dormant against the darkening sky.
From our vantage point overlooking the main bonfire, we watched the evening’s activities develop. Around 9 p.m. the main street by the beach was blocked off and gradually began to fill up with pedestrians. Many people reserve restaurant tables and spend the early evening with friends before setting off to watch the show.
As it got darker, flames began to pop up along the beach. By the time a small parade that began the official celebration made it’s way to the main bonfire tower, the beach was aglow with dots of orange, red and yellow of various sizes.
The parade is led by the Meiga Mayor, the Queen Witch, the girl chosen to light the fire bonfire. The tradition of witches doesn’t carry the same negative connotation as it does in other cultures. The word meiga means magic, and witches can be both good and bad.
At midnight, a giant firework display lit up the night sky, and the Meiga Mayor ignites the tribute bonfire. Each year, a bonfire is built to celebrate a theme. This year’s theme focused on Pablo Picasso. He lived in Coruña from the ages of 10 to 14, and exhibited his first works here. He was also the subject of a show at the art museum earlier this year. The bonfire had giant paper maché figures of the artist from young boy to old man, with representations of his different styles along the way. To be featured on the bonfire is a high honor.
To a chorus of cheers, Pablo went up in a blaze of glory, with more fireworks shooting out of the structure. By now the beach was a haze of smoke diffusing the bright flames of hundreds of fires. Even from our vantage point overlooking the beach one could feel the heat.
Once the bonfires waned slightly, the crowd started jumping the flames. It is tradition to jump over them three times for good luck. A quick walk around the throng was enough for us as the smoke was almost overwhelming. We were back by 2 a.m., but the party was still going strong.
The next morning, a crew of workers attacked the beach, removing debris and smoothing out the sand — aided by the seagulls eagerly picking up leftovers. All that was left when the dump trucks moved off, was a few scorch marks on the sand.
Even though it was a Wednesday morning, the city was virtually closed down with only a few weary stragglers making their way home from the beach — and the tourists, of course. We were the only ones who looked like we’d got any sleep.