Noche de San Juan: Tradition, Magic and Fire

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The 24th of June is Saint John’s Day, another saint in the Catholic calendar, but do you know how and why we celebrate it the night before? Would you like to know the rites and traditions that take place the night before? Do you know the origin of this celebration? Do you want to find out what we eat and drink during this celebration? Then read this post and find out everything.


There is no just one single origin of this festival, which is celebrated in both Spain and Latin America, but instead there are several rites or traditions that seem to have contributed to the creation or transformation of this festivity into what we have today. Although it’s now associated with Catholicism, this was not initially the case. They were different pagan rituals in honour of the sun during the summer solstice (the longest day of the year).

Inca origins

The Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun is an Inca religious celebration in which they paid tribute to their most important god, the god Inti (“God of Sun”). Music, dance, sacrifices and offerings to pay homage to the God of Sun and to thank Mother Nature for the harvests. Today you can see a theatrical representation of the ancient ritual in Cuzco, Peru.

Celtic origins

The Celts celebrated the marriage of the gods Jupiter and Juno with bonfires and offerings, and some of the rituals that have survived to the present day include jumping over bonfires.

Christian origins

With the appearance and rise of Christianity, an attempt was made to replace any celebration of non-Christian origin with a Christian one. The summer solstice used to be celebrated between the 20th and 22nd of June, but was moved to the 24th of June to fall on the birth of St. John the Baptist, a fundamental figure for Christians. Do you want to know more about St. John the Baptist? Then you can read this article in which they explain his story in depth.

If you want to know more, here is a video from Canal Historia in which they talk about the different origins and rites of these festivities.

Traditions and rites in Spain and Latin America

The bonfires

The focal point of these celebrations is fire. People make bonfires, in a controlled way, on beaches, squares and different places to burn the objects they no longer want: the photo of your ex- boyfriend/girlfriend, that hated grammar book, etc. The idea is to destroy what you no longer want in your life in order to keep or bring only the positive.

Besides using the bonfire to burn these unwanted objects, another of the oldest traditions is to jump over the bonfire (3 times as the story goes) for good luck. Yes, most of the traditions and rites of the night before Midsummer’s Day are loaded with magical or superstitious elements to attract good luck, money or love. There are also people who write wishes on a piece of paper and burn them in the bonfire to make them come true.


Water is also another important part of the night of the 23rd of June. People bathe in the sea at midnight and there are different variations on this tradition. Some go in backwards, others jump into the waves and others just wash their faces. What is clear is that it is an excuse to spend a special night by the sea.

Predictions and rituals to bring in the positive

Bonfires and night baths in the sea are the most popular rituals in Spain, but there are also some rather surprising ones that some people try during what they call “the most magical night of the year:

  • putting potatoes under the bed to predict your finances for the coming year,
  • leaving a bowl of water in the moonlight and looking at your reflection the next day,
  • numerous forms of clairvoyance using tea leaves, eggs, etc.,
  • some rituals with plants to predict or attract luck,
  • and a long etcetera.

Typical Spanish traditions

El Paso del Fuego 

Local festivity in San Pedro Manrique, Soria, which consists of walking barefoot over a “carpet” of hot embers. About 20 people from the village walk over the fire while the villagers and spectators cheer them on with music and applause. Each man carry a woman, sometimes dressed in traditional clothing, a la pela or a caballito (piggyback).

Gigantes y cabezudos

In many of reagions of Spain, in addition to the bonfires, they have a special way of celebrating these festivities. This is the tradition of the gigantes y cabezudos, a medieval tradition that consists of a parade in which some people dance with figures several meters high called gigantes and others called cabezudos, because they have very large heads. These figures are not exclusive to the celebration of San Juan, but they are very popular at this time of year. Below you can see a video of a parade of giants and big-headed figures on the day of San Juan.

If you are curious to know how these peculiar figures are made, you can watch the following video in which a company specialised in their construction explains the steps and materials used to make them.

Food and drinks to celebrate San Juan

Cazuela de San Juan (Motril, Granada)

A spiced pumpkin pie that was already prepared in Andalusia when it was Muslim territory (Al-Andalus). Although its ingredients may seem typical of autumn or Christmas, the reality is that it’s prepared for the festivities of San Juan.

Macarrones de San Juan (Ibiza)

A fairly unusual dessert made with macaroni (pasta), cinnamon, saffron, milk, sugar and lemon. It is a version of the traditional rice pudding that is prepared on the eve of San Juan (the 23rd of June) in the Balearic Islands.

Zurracapote (Calahorra, La Rioja)

It is a drink similar to sangria, made with Rioja wine and peaches, which was created in Calahorra to use up the excess of this fruit in the region. A fresh and fruity drink, perfect for the warmer months.

Queimada (Galicia)

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Another typical alcoholic drink of San Juan. In this case it is an almost ceremonial preparation that is still made today and was supposed to scare away the meigas (witches) and evil spirits. Its origins are unclear, but from the ingredients it contains it is thought to have been created in the Middle Ages: brandy, sugar, lemon, orange and coffee beans. During preparation, an incantation is recited, which, together with the bluish colour of the fire with which the sugar is melted to transform it into caramel, gives it the air of a ritual practice.

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Our very own podcast

If you’d like to keep practising your Spanish while you learn a bit more about San Juan’s Day, here you have our very own podcast about it. Listen and enjoy!

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