Friday, June 23, 2017

The Hairy Saint John Without Hair

In Felanitx, Pollensa and Sant Joan he is known as Sant Joan Pelós. In Sant Llorenç he is Sant Joan Pelut. The meaning is the same - Saint John the Hairy. In Felanitx, such is the status of its Sant Joan that the dance has been declared a fiesta in the cultural interest. This means that there is an obligation for the tradition to be maintained and promoted in its traditional format. It also means that there is a degree of kudos attached.

The Felanitx John was responsible for one of the more amusing anecdotes associated with Mallorca's traditions. Or should one say not amusing, because a royal personage - Isabel de Borbón y Borbón, daughter of Queen Isabel II - was singularly unamused by him. So much so that when she visited Felanitx in 1913, she demanded to know who the idiot was who was dancing for her.

The dance is all important, and its origins appear to lie not with midsummer but with Christmastime, specifically the feasts of Saint Stephen, i.e. Boxing Day, and of John the Evangelist (27 December). Scholars point to the fact that at least until the sixteenth century there were rituals in the liturgy at Palma Cathedral in which Saint Stephen would appear on Boxing Day in a long tunic with his face covered. The following day there would be a repetition; this time involving John the Evangelist, who would wear a veil of white silk over his face.

Somehow, John the Baptist was added to this ritual. In contrast to the Evangelist, the Baptist had a mask and wore a hairy cape and sandals. In one hand he would hold a lamb. In the other was a cross on which were the Latin words "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Behold! The Lamb of God). Eventually, the combination of John the Evangelist and John the Baptist was incorporated into the ceremony for Corpus Christi, and the image of John the Baptist was the one which prevailed. Nowadays, if one is being strictly accurate, only Pollensa has maintained the Corpus Christi connection. The other Hairy Johns manifest themselves on Midsummer's Day, the feast of John the Baptist.

There isn't total consistency between the Johns and the celebrations. In the village of Sant Joan for instance, he is accompanied by a giant crow, the Corb Nofre, which emits fire. The crow is an entirely modern invention, introduced to add a touch more colour and mystery to the whole affair. The hairiness is generally shared, though this has passed with time to the head rather than the original cape of the mediaeval ceremony. But in Sant Llorenç there is no hairiness. Sant Joan Pelut sports a short back and sides.

Whereas Pollensa can trace its John back to at least the early seventeenth century, the spread of Hairy Johns across Mallorca, but most notably in its eastern part, wasn't especially evident until the end of the eighteenth century. In Manacor, its John first seems to have appeared in 1750 but disappeared some 150 years later. There were Johns in Son Carrió, Son Servera, Arta and Alcudia, but in the specific case of Sant Llorenç there is no documentary evidence of him until 1945. A bachelor of the village, it was explained, danced "furiously" and was accompanied by two demons.

As with other dancing Johns, the intention was to whip up mirth. A Catalan writer on folklore, Joan Amades, writing about Catalan customs in the 1950s, said that "the mission of the character is to plan the maximum possible humour; the more laughter, the better". Isabel de Borbón y Borbón might not have been amused, but the folk of the villages were.

The Sant Llorenç John is believed to have been based on Manacor's. But from the heady days of the 1940s, he went into decline, as did other Johns. Much has been said and written about the abandonment of traditions, with the onset of tourism and a regime not minded to actively promote Catalan customs chiefly attributed with having caused the decline. It has also been noted, however, that there was indifference. The people had, for a time, been amused, but they gradually stopped bothering, as also did those who arranged the traditional dances.

At the start of the 1980s there was the revival. In Sant Llorenç it was due to musicians and the person who became the Hairy John, Toni Santandreu. Today's John, Biel Nicolau, has the two demons as there were in the mid-1940s. But why, unlike others, doesn't he have the hair? Good question. And another is why he wears what looks like a mortar board. Mallorca's traditions are often highly idiosyncratic, and Sant Joan Pelut is a good example.

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