This is the night of fire. The night of light and darkness, life and death, the longest day, the shortest night, and a night of ritual and mystery.
Rooted in ancient pagan customs, sanitised by the church, this is the night of summer solstice which became the celebration of Saint John the Baptist, La Noche de San Juan. St Johns day is the 24th, but traditionally the night of San Juan is the night before, the 23rd.
The core of this celebration is fire and on this night the bad luck of the past is burnt and dissolved, and we can all move forward with a clean slate , a theme which is repeated and elaborated in many Spanish fiestas throughout the year.
Throughout Spain, bonfires are lit and friends and family gather together to share a meal and see out the bad luck in style. There are many , many myths and practices associated with this night, which is also known as the night of the witches due to the number of quaint traditions which are employed by those seeking love, health and beauty, good luck or even to find what the future holds.
There is deep symbolism in fire, and as this is a night of contrast, many of the bonfires will be lit in places associated with water. The most popular place in this region has always been the beach, but in the absence of a beach, a rambla, riverbed or lakeside will do just as well.
We've phoned a few town halls this week to double check the regulations, and it is actually completely illegal to not only light bonfires at this time of year, but to light them anywhere near a beach. Now this is Spain, so the normal procedure here is to employ a team of lawyers to write exhaustive legislative volumes and then for everybody to completely ignore them and carry on the way things have always been.
Basically you're not supposed to light bonfires on tarmac streets, close to houses, near forests or in places where neighbours can be inconvenienced and extensive health and safety procedures must be observed.
Controlled bonfires must be registered with the local council and normally the fire officers will come around and check the bonfire before allowing it to be lit.
Cartagena firemen are generally called to around 40 incidents per Noche de san Juan which usually involve out of control bonfires, burning bins because people have tidied up before everything has cooled down and set the bin on fire and a few things burning which aren't supposed to be, and some councils will turn a blind eye to bonfires on the beach.
Los Alcázares, for example, said that if you go into the Town hall to ask permission, you will be granted permission to have a barbeque, but you need to fill in a form and ask properly and produce the paper when the police check. But of course, only the locals will really know the score, so if in doubt, don´t start piling up logs on the beach
If you've had a rotten year, and would like a bit more luck to come your way in the coming months, write down all the bad on a piece and paper, throw it in the bonfire and leap over the flames.
If you'd like a bit of good luck to come your way write down your wishes and cast them into the water, and whilst you're there, wash your feet and face, then jump over the flames, and this will bring you health and beauty for the next 12 months.
There are many other little rituals which are practised on this night - leave woollen clothing outside all night and you'll be free from moths in the winter to come, or if you want to know about the weather during the next 12 months, chop an onion into 12 pieces, cover with salt, and line up outside in a row. Assign each piece a month of the year, and in the morning you'll know the months in which to expect rain as dew will have formed on those particular pieces.
So, wander down to the nearest water source or just get together with a few people and cross the divide between the longest day and the shortest night, cast off the bad and move forward to the light refreshed and cleansed, and celebrate the transition from bad times to good.
And don't put the ashes in the bin for at least 24 hours.
That´s another story.
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