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Celtic Bonfire Traditions in Northeastern Spain and Portugal

On my previous post I discussed upon Midsummer's Eve celebrations in Ireland and Herbal Connections. But this tradition is also especially strong in northern areas of Spain, such as Galicia and Asturias, where one can easily identify the rituals that reveal the pagan beliefs widespread throughout Europe in Neolithic times.


Bonfires are lit when the day 24, ie, after midnight. They are credited with protection and good luck to the fact a fire jump nine times that night (depending on the populations, the number varies). Also practitioners had to receive nine times waves at the nozzle to increase female fertility. Very dear are the bonfires on the Island of Arosa as each year more than 50 this solstice bonfires are lit on the site, with a festive atmosphere the beautiful white sand beaches are full of people to the orange firelight. At night they gather herbs of various kinds are left in water to wash the next morning it accounted for therapeutic and cleansing properties.

These beliefs pivot on three basic ideas: the importance of medicinal plants, especially in relation to health, youth and beauty; the protective character of fire to ward men off evil spirits and witches and, finally, the purifying, miraculous effects of water. What follows is a summary of Galician traditions surrounding St. John's festival in relation to these three elements.

  • Medicinal plants:
Traditionally, women collect several species of plants on St. John's eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, different species of fern (e.g. dryopteris filix-mas), rue (herb of grace, ruta graveolens), rosemary, dog rose (rosa canina), lemon verbena, St John's wort (hypericum perforatum), mallows (malva sylvestris), laburnum, foxgloves (digitalis purpurea) and elder flowers.

In some areas, these are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways. In most others, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning (o dia de San Xoan -St. John's day), when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.
  • Water:
Tradition holds it that the medicinal plants mentioned above are most effective when dipped in water collected from seven different springs. Also, on some beaches, it was traditional for women who wanted to be fertile to bathe in the sea until they were washed by 9 waves.
  • Fire:
Bonfires are lit, usually around midnight both on beaches and inland, so much so that one usually cannot tell the smoke from the mist common in this Atlantic corner of Iberia at this time of the year, and it smells burnt everywhere. Occasionally, a dummy is placed at the top, representing a witch or the devil. Young and all gather around them and feast mostly on pilchards, potatoes boiled in their skins and maize bread. When it is relatively safe to jump over the bonfire, it is done three times (although it could also be nine or any odd number) for good luck at the cry of “meigas fora” (witches off!).It is also common to drink Queimada, a beverage resulting from setting alight Galician grappa mixed with sugar, coffee beans and pieces of fruit, which is prepared while chanting an incantation against evil spirits.

The typical food of the evening are cachelos (baked potatoes with their skins, which is then removed) and grilled sardines. The typical drink is the "burning" magic potion of brandy with fruit and lots of sugar that is burned in a pot and recites a spell during the preparation. It's a party extended along the coast and most of Galicia.


In Asturias, this night is called the traditional "Nuechi de San Xuan" a. The most famous Fogueró Mieres is burning in the Town Hall Square in the city. They also have a reputation of Oviedo, held in the district of Sama and whose fire is burning in the middle of the river Nalón, and held in the town of Corvera including holding a "Nuechi Celta" a free music festival held by several folk music groups. They are also very massive bonfires taking place on the beach west of Gijón and the Oviedo's Cathedral Square. All of them are enlivened by musical groups, and have fireworks and the typical "espichas" Asturian cider consumption, in the traditional style.


In Portugal, Midsummer festivities are included in what is known today as Santos Populares (Popular Saints celebrations), now corresponding to different municipal holidays: St Anthony's Day in Lisbon (June 13), St John's Day in Porto, Braga, Figueira da Foz, and Almada (June 24), St Peter's day in Seixal, Sintra, Póvoa do Varzim, and Barcelos (June 29). The actual Midsummer, St John's day, is celebrated traditionally more in Porto and Braga.

Saints’ days are full of fun and merriment. The streets are decorated with balloons and arches made out of brightly coloured paper; people dance in the city's small squares, and altars, dedicated to the saints, are put up as a way of asking for good fortune. These holidays are days of festivities with good food and refreshments, people eat Caldo Verde (cabbage and potato soup), Sardinha Assada (grilled sardines), bread and drink red wine and água-pé (grape juice with a small percentage of alcohol).

In Lisbon, in Avenida da Liberdade, there are the Marchas, a parade of folklore and costumes of the inhabitants from the city's different traditional quarters, with hundreds of singers and dancers and a vast audience applauding their favorite participants. As St Anthony is the matchmaker saint, it is still the tradition in Lisbon to celebrate multiple marriages (200 to 300) and still following the tradition, if you are attracted to someone, one can declare himself in the heat of the festivities by offering to the loved person a manjerico (a flower-pot with a sweet basil plant) and a love poem.

In Porto and Braga St John's is a festival that is lived to the full in the streets, where anything is permitted. People carry a whole plant of flowering garlic with them (or a little plastic hammer), which they use to bang their neighbors over the head for good luck. According to one Portuguese Grandmother, the tradition is that St. John was a scalliwag in his youth and the people hit him on the head with the garlic saying "return to the right path". There is also dancing, while the highlight of the night is the firework display over the River Douro (in Porto) and down Avenida da Liberdade (in Braga). Across the country the traditional midsummer bonfire is also built, and following an ancient pagan tradition, revelers try to jump over the bonfire, this in order to gain protection during the rest of the year.

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