Playing with Fire at Nit de Sant Joan

We’re weaving our way through a crowd near Plaza Rebes and I’m holding the hand of my 5-year-old niece. It’s unusually dark because most of the street lights have been turned off for the night. I’m straining my eyes to keep track of my brother-in-law, Ori, and the kids. Suddenly I hear Ori shouting “Look out look out look out!” As I turn to see what he’s talking about, an impossibly loud crack shatters the air and I feel the bottom of my skirt blow back from the force. The noise of the crowd falls away to a muffled rumble as loud ringing fills my ears. For a few moments I’m a little disoriented. We continue weaving through the crowd and the realization sets in that I almost stepped on a large firecracker…in sandals! I quickly develop a new found appreciation for having all of my toes.

It’s Nit de Sant Joan (Night of Saint John) in Andorra la Vella, and near toe-death experiences are just par for the course. Information on this holiday will reference the summer solstice and the Catalan tradition of honoring the patron saint by giving the sun strength for the long days of summer through bon fires and firecrackers. However, if you ask a native of Catalunya about the history of the San Joan holiday celebration, you’ll get a mischievous smile, a shrug and a confession that it’s really just an excuse to play with fire like maniacs.

And that is what they do. All day long booms, blasts and shrieks from fireworks resonate throughout the valley. Keep in mind many of these are explosives that wouldn’t be legal in the U.S. They’re insanely loud and I would assume also dangerous. The booms increase in frequency throughout the day until it sounds like you’re in the middle of a battlefield. We jumped in on the San Joan festivities ourselves. With one sick kiddo at home in bed (Liv was battling a stomach bug), Brian went out to the plaza with Ali, Em, Ori and the cousins to light fireworks.
Yes, my children are lighting firecrackers in some of these photos. I guess I’ve gotten over my “mommy mode” issue. When in Rome….

After a couple hours of loud, sparkly merry making, it was time for the main event. There is probably a more formal name for the fire ceremony during the Night of Saint John, but I like to call it “Adrenaline Junkies in Ponchos Swinging Bags of Fire through Crowded Streets.” The experience is a bit of a wild ride for an American used to rigid safety requirements. It began with a walk to Old Town, which turned into an anxiety-inducing stroll since everyone was shooting off fireworks along the way. The stone buildings and narrow cobblestone streets magnified the crack of every blast. This is where I had my encounter with the cherry bomb and found my appreciation for ten toes. Despite the experience, we weren’t deterred, kept walking with our eyes scouring the ground for anything attached to a fuse and eventually found a spot on the steps of the Sant Esteve Church. We were right on the narrow cobblestone street where the “Adrenaline Junkies in Ponchos Swinging Bags of Fire” would begin their march through the town.

Seeing these men and women swing baskets of burning embers and logs is fascinating. Watching a fire can be a little hypnotic in and of itself, but watching a fire being flung around a person’s head within inches of other people’s heads is downright surreal. Some of these human flame throwers have mastered their craft so well that they can go from standing to lying down on the ground to standing again, all the while keeping their fire basket circumnavigating above them.

The march led out into the plaza where a ceremonial skit commenced. A shirtless man wearing a massive goat headdress stood above the crowd on the steps of Sant Esteve Church while a small angry mob clad in black hooded cloaks and wielding torches shouted at him. They captured goat man, loaded him into a wooden cart and began the walk to another plaza with the crowd following behind them. When we arrived at this next plaza the flame throwers had reappeared and began walking through the crowd in different directions. Using the threat of their flame-filled baskets, they formed the crowd of people packing the plaza into an amoeba-like shape with a large circle in the middle. As their fires began to dwindle, the flame throwers would increase the speed of their swinging and scrape the ground sending showers of embers shooting out around them.

All this time I had been with Emily while Brian was back at the apartment with Liv and Ali. I was surprised at Emily’s enthusiasm for all of this fire mania. She continuously wanted to be at the front of the crowd and stood as close to the flaming baskets as I would allow. When the circle formed, she squeezed her way through to the edge of it and had a perfect view for the “witches’ dance.” Women with wild, teased hair and black, Stevie Nicks-style dresses began a modern, tribal dance of synchronized leaping, turning and arm flailing. At the end of the performance they dramatically collapsed on the ground and were hauled off over the shoulders of the same men who had captured goat man.

Then it was time for, what else, more fire! A huge bonfire was ignited in the middle of the circle and the crowd began circling around it, bouncing to the beat of the drums and shouting out a rhythmic “Hey!” every now and then. Emily pulled me into this mass of humanity, and there we were, weaving our way around the circle with the locals, throwing our arms up and bouncing to the beat. Those crazy Carisch gals! What will they do next?!

This late night of exciting, semi-dangerous activities was appropriately followed by a day of feasting and sitting around. We celebrated with our family and their friends, eating great food, letting the kids play and enjoying a large batch of sangria. Sant Joan might be my favorite Catalan holiday so far. :-)
Sant Joan Feast


About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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