Today is Festes de Sant Joan!
Throughout history, summer solstice celebrations have been an important element of social, cultural, and religious life in many Spanish cities and towns, especially those close to the sea. Originally a pagan Celtic ritual on the shortest night of the year, the holiday was Christianized during the 5th century by the deeply religious king Clovis and named "Saint John's Day" after Saint John the Baptist, who was born on the 24th of July.
Most celebrations take place on the eve of the Saint's birthday with fireworks, bonfires, music, singing and dancing. In some places there are additional activities such as jumping through flames of bonfires for good luck, or taking a cleansing dip in the ocean to purify oneself for the new season. During the Galician Conjuro de la Queimada the soul is purified by drinking orujo, a traditional Galician liqueur which is lit on fire in a clay pot, while "witches" recite an ancient incantation to banish the evil spirits.
Whereas in most places the element of fire has remained one of the major attractions of the Saint John celebrations, the city of Ciutadella on Menorca—a small Balearic island with a fascinating history of foreign rulers—developed rituals of its own, which are nowhere else to be found. There, during their patron saint's Festes de Sant Joan, more than 100 Menorca-bred horses, “La Menorquina” breed, and their expert riders, known as the cavallers, are the main protagonists in the festivities, together with a committee of caixers representing the ancient society of Ciutadella. This committee consists of a caixer capella (a priest in charge of the religious events), a caixer senyor (a member of the ancient nobility) who is helped by the fabioler heralding the events that are coming up, two caixers pagesos (farmers keeping order in the cavalcades), a caixer menestral (representing artisans), and a caixer fadri (the flagbearer).
On these days, the horses are dressed up and ridden through the streets where the island youths encourage the horses to jump and to dance for as long as possible on their back legs.
The festivity is ruled by a traditional protocol. The protocol is so strict that even the costumes that each one of the ‘caixers’ wears is different as well as the ornaments on the stud horses are different according to the rider.
Although it may seem that these festivities where the horses mix with the crowds, while they perform their jumps, could be dangerous, nothing can be further from truth. The horses are perfectly trained to avoid hurting those present; in fact, they are trained all year round especially for this day.
- Alba Serrano-Miro
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