Sunday, June 22, 2014

Saint John: A movable feast

The town of Sant Joan rarely attracts a great deal of attention. This past week, for less than positive reasons, it has been attracting attention. But while the archaeologists have been undertaking the careful search of the remains of victims of Civil War murder, the people of the town have been otherwise engaged in preparations for the fiesta of Sant Joan. When your town is called Sant Joan, it would be impossible not to celebrate the fiesta. But hang on a minute, does the town celebrate the fiesta? Yes but no.

There are fiestas for Sant Joan in several Mallorcan towns - Calvia, Deià, Mancor de la Vall, Muro, Portopetro and Son Servera - but there aren't in Sant Joan. Or rather, there are, but only partially in order to celebrate the summer solstice and the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The town's Sant Joan fiestas are in fact at the end of August. Sant Joan Degollat. The day of the beheading.

So, why does the town opt to honour the saint's gory end rather than his birthday? The reason, so it would seem, lies with traditions of the harvest. Until 1919, there was a midsummer Sant Joan fiesta, but because the local farmers were so busy in the fields and didn't have time for enjoying themselves, they moved things to the end of August.

Albeit that 29 August marks a rather unfortunate event, Saint John losing his head, there is at least a sound reason for moving the feast. Other movable feasts have less obvious justification. Those for Santa Catalina Thomàs being a good example. The saint was born in May, died in April, was beatified in August and was canonised in June. Logically therefore, Valldemossa, where she was born, celebrates her in July. Even more logically, Santa Margalida's La Beata in her honour takes place in September. Feasts can indeed be movable, and the reason why Santa Margalida does her in September is the same reason why Sant Joan does Saint John at the end of August. The harvest.

Santa Catalina is, however, a rather unusual saint in that she is a sort of commoner saint. You won't find her in the Bible because she wasn't born until the sixteenth century. Perhaps, therefore, it is easier to move non-Biblical saints' days around. Just find a date that suits everyone and have a fiesta.

Someone who most certainly did feature in the Bible was Jesus. In Alcúdia, he has a feast which was moved for no obvious rhyme nor reason. Sant Crist, an alternative title for Jesus, occurs on 26 July. Once every three years. Yet, the background to this celebration is something which happened on 24 February, 1507. This was the day when an image of Christ apparently sweated blood and water and performed a miracle, ridding Alcúdia of all manner of plague, pestilence, famine and what have you. So, why July and indeed why every three years? It was a decision of the local church, one on cost grounds. Sant Crist was tagged on to the town's Sant Jaume fiestas as a way of saving money, while the decision to hold it once every three years was because Sant Crist became a seriously big deal for the whole of Mallorca. Alcúdia couldn't cope with all those pilgrims descending on the town every year.

But to return to John the Baptist and to better times when he still had his head, Sant Joan does have a midsummer celebration: Sol que Balla, the sun dance. On 24 June, the townsfolk, and especially the town's children, watch the sun rise and have a dance, and the bells of the church are rung.  As such therefore, the celebration isn't anything to do with John the Baptist. It's one of those happy coincidences that he happened to be born at the same time as the summer solstice occurred, which has allowed there to be two celebrations in one ever since.

The solstice element of Sant Joan fiestas around Mallorca is no better celebrated than in Calvia. The tradition of wearing white, having a picnic on the beach, lighting candles (or starting a fire), taking a cleansing and purifying dip in the sea at midnight has caught on elsewhere, in places where there is no Sant Joan celebration. Strictly speaking, starting fires on the beach are not allowed at any time, let alone around midnight on 23 June, but it is quite possible that you might encounter one or two. This is, after all, the night of the fires, an ancient ritual for the solstice.

Whatever you do for midsummer's night and for the fiestas of Sant Joan, enjoy yourselves, but don't go losing your head.

Photo: Sol que Balla from Klaus's Mallorca Photo Blog, June 2009,

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