Sant Joan: Old And New

In Palma there never used to be much of a celebration for Sant Joan, John the Baptist. In fact, Palma - in modern times - has never had a grand summer fiesta. The city's major fiesta occasion is in January for the patron Sant Sebastià. However, this overlooks the fact that Palma, a city of districts and neighbourhoods, has numerous summer fiestas. These are the localised events rather than a city-wide fiesta.

Sant Joan, even if it is confined to midsummer itself and doesn't entail a full programme like the fiestas do in other parts of the island, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It arose because of one neighbourhood, Sant Joan i de la Pau. In 1976, the Puig de Sant Pere residents association organised a party for Sant Joan Eve, i.e. Midsummer's Eve. By 1983, the party had attained such popularity that the Palma federation of residents associations became involved. Five years later, this purely citizens' initiative burst out of its neighbourhood zone, and it did so in spectacular fashion. The party moved to the Parc de la Mar, and its high point was what was to be the first Nit de Foc, the night of fire for Sant Joan, demons and all.

The event grew and grew in popularity, and in 2012 Palma town hall introduced direct funding, or rather reintroduced it. Cutbacks in 1993 meant that there wasn't an event until the federation brought it back in 1997. The demons' correfocs really became what they are thanks to the subsequent intervention of the Obra Cultural Balear.

By contrast with Palma, the fiestas had been well-established in villages with intimate and saintly patronage association with Sant Joan, such as Deya, Muro and Sant Joan itself, where the parish churches are named Sant Joan Baptista.

One of the very oldest of celebrations in the Christian calendar along with the births of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the ancient rituals of fire and water are very much alive today. The origins pre-date Christian times. Midsummer's Eve was in honour of Pales, a somewhat obscure Roman divinity of flocks and shepherds. Ovid, who was around at the time of Christ's birth, recorded the ceremonies that involved water, herbs and bonfires. Purification and fertility were the aims.

Sant Joan has therefore always been an occasion for positive magical deeds, despite or perhaps because of the presence of witches and demons. One of the magical components, because of its apparently remarkable properties, is Hypericum perforatum, otherwise known as St. John's wort. A specific, traditional application of this herbal remedy in Majorca on the eve of Sant Joan is to use it on the eyes as a cure for blindness.

Herbs and plants are traditionally, therefore, every bit as much an aspect of this midsummer fiesta, even if it is the fires which take pride of place. Going back over the centuries, there were other features. The celebration of Sant Joan in Palma, as it now is, may be recent, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was quite an event.

The current church of Sant Joan de Malta in La Llotja dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. The original was built in the thirteenth century, and this church was the focal point for a fiesta on Midsummer's Eve. There was a parade. There were drinks and hazelnuts; dances and music. The guild of coopers was responsible for organising it.

The Sant Joan fiestas in the village of Sant Joan are not as old as one might think. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary; they were first held in 1919 and are Sant Joan's patron saint fiestas. However, Sant Joan is unusual in that it has a second set of fiestas at the end of August. These are the for the death of John the Baptist and are rather more lavish than the midsummer version. The reason for this was that there wasn't sufficient time to arrange and hold a more complete fiesta programme in June because of the need to tend to the fields, especially the cereals.

Crops, herbs, animals; they have all passed into Majorcan folklore sayings for Sant Joan. "The herbs of Saint John have virtue all year long"; "The rabbit for Saint John and the partridge for Christmas"; "Mists at Saint John are bad for the almonds." And so long as there aren't the mists, there is the sun: "Cold at Christmas, heat for Saint John; health for the whole of the year."

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