SHARE
COPY LINK
SAN JUAN

FESTIVALS

Goats, horses and fire: the weird ways Spain celebrates San Juan

Nobody celebrates festivities with quite the same flair and diversity as Spain, and Saint John's Eve is no exception.

Goats, horses and fire: the weird ways Spain celebrates San Juan
A horse rears in a crowd in the Menorcan town of Ciutadella as part of the usual Sant Joan celebrations. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

Saint John’s Eve or the feast of Saint John, known as El Día San Juan in Spain, is a celebration that usually involves elements of fire, dancing and some debatable treatment of animals.

In Spain Saint John’s Eve is either celebrated on June 23rd or 24th, but it falls close to the summer solstice on June 21st and bears some resemblance to Midsummer celebrations in Scandinavia and other northern countries.

In simple terms, Spain’s Día San Juan was born from the Christianisation of the pagan ritual of celebrating the summer solstice. 

Whether it be effigy burning, dousing each other with water, or touching the belly of a prancing stallion, midsummer revelries take place from coast to coast and are some of the most popular fiestas in all of Spain.

The past two years, festivities were cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and many municipalities cordoned off their beaches to prevent partygoers from gathering.

Things are back to normal this year, so townsfolk in coastal areas of Spain will again head to the beach for a night of revelry around huge bonfires, with dancing, drinking and feasting often culminating in a midnight dip in the ocean.

There are however other San Juan celebrations which are even more bizarre, in some cases – as is often the case during Spanish festivals – with some questionable treatment towards animals.

Photo: José Jordan/AFP

In Alicante elaborate effigies are paraded through the town before being thrown into the flames while the streets pulsate with music, dancing and firecrackers, similar to Valencia’s festivies during Las Fallas

Photo: Jose Jordán/AFP

Menorca has a strange tradition which sees horses (and their riders) gallop, dance and prance through crowds while onlookers attempt to touch the equine’s belly, a feat that ensures good luck for the year.

Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

In Catalonia, the Sant Joan parties are held on the night of June 23rd. The following day is also a public holiday, which residents usually need to recover from the night before. The firework explosions begin at least a week beforehand as everyone readies themselves for the big night. On the night itself, crowds gather on beaches to set off and watch spectacular firework displays, whilst eating coca (a local type of sweet bread) and drinking cava. 

Photo: JOSE LUIS ROCA / AFP

Revellers in Lanjarón, in the Alpujarras area south of Granada, choose to celebrate midsummer with an almighty water fight when residents use every receptacle at hand – hoses, buckets, water pistols – to drench each other. 

In the Pyrenean town of Isil near Lleida (Catalonia), residents mark Sant Joan by zigzagging from mountain top to town square carrying burning branches. After a huge bonfire, townsfolk dance until dawn.


Las Falles in Isil involve a lot of burning log carrying. Photo: Andres Merizalde / Flickr

In the Tenerife town of Puerto de la Cruz, goats take centre stage during the celebration of the Baño de las Cabras. Goat herders bring their herd to the beach and the bleating animals are (somewhat reluctantly) dunked into the sea. The event has its origins in an aboriginal ritual celebrated by the Guanches – the first Canary islanders – to mark the summer solstice.

 Photo: Desiree Martín/AFP

In the Basque village of Bakio, evil spirits are banished by “Zanpanzar” who stomp to the rhythm of giant cowbells.

Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP

While in San Pedro Manrique in Soria province (north-central Spain), the midsummer ritual involves men walking barefoot over hot coals without burning their feet… Oh, and with the added challenge (and weight) of carrying a woman on their back.

Wherever you are in Spain, Happy San Juan!

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

CHRISTMAS

The cities in Spain with the best Christmas lights

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Spain as many places have already switched on their festive lights. Some Spanish cities go all out, covering their streets with lots of sparkle and magic. Here are some of the best displays to see.

The cities in Spain with the best Christmas lights

Spain puts on a great show during the festive time of year and many of its cities look especially Christmassy covered in twinkly lights and pops of colour. Here are some of the cities to visit if you want to see the best displays. 

Due to the current energy and climate crisis, many cities in Spain have said that they would shorten the number of hours their Christmas lights are switched on for this year, while others have swapped over to LEDs instead. Some of the best cities for Christmas lights, such as Madrid and Vigo have insisted that they will not cut back on decorations, however, and will still look as magical as ever. 

Málaga

The Andalusian city of Málaga is one of the best when it comes to festive atmosphere in Spain, giving a spectacular display of light and colour. The city’s main shopping street – Calle Larios has for the last few years become one of the most famous Christmassy streets in Spain with an incredible show of light and music and decorative elements forming arches over the top of the road.

Over 500 streets around the city are decked in lights and there are also themed video mapping displays shown on the cathedral.

Calle Larios in Málaga is one of the most Christmassy streets in Spain. Photo: Thomas COEX / AFP

Madrid

Being the capital of Spain, it’s not surprising that Madrid is one of the best places to see the Christmas lights. The city uses no less than 7 million LED lights to light up the streets in the centre, as well as some of its most iconic buildings.

Some of the best places to see the lights include Puerta de San Vicente, Puerta De Alcalá and Puerta de Toledo. More than 40,000 12-meter Christmas lights are also strung up every year between Gran Vía and Calle Alcalá. Madrid’s plazas are decked out in Christmas joy too, with not only lights but lots of sparkly trees. The Plaza Mayor is particularly one of the most festive because of its Christmas market. 

Don’t miss one of the city’s most unique Christmas scenes at the Naturaleza Encendida show in the Royal Botanical Gardens. 

Visit the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid for its magical Christmas displays. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Barcelona

Christmas lights in the Catalan capital extend 100km throughout the centre, but you’ll find twinkly displays in all of its neighbourhoods too. One of the most impressive areas is the grand Passeig de Gràcia which is typically covered in sparkling spirals as well as reflective metallic-coloured butterflies, which make them twinkle in the daytime too. Emblematic buildings such as Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and the Hotel Majestic also create fantastic displays with candles. 

Plaza de Catalunya is another spot where lights abound, particularly around El Corte Inglés and down onto La Rambla. Don’t forget to check out the Christmas video mapping on the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, the city’s UNESCO Modernist old hospital.

Barcelona’s La Rambla transforms into a winter wonderland. Photo: JOSEP LAGO / AFP

Vigo

Vigo may be one of the smallest cities on our list, but it’s definitely big when it comes to Christmas. It’s said that the mayor of the city Abel Caballero loves this time of year and goes all out when it comes to decorations. Vigo dedicates one of the biggest budgets to its Christmas décor and has installed a system for more than 11 million LED lights for this purpose. Think coloured garlands, luminous figures, bright angels and curtains of glitter.

One of the best places to see them is the city’s Porta do Sol, which also hosts Vigo’s huge Christmas tree. In the past, there has been a 10-metre-high Christmas bauble, a giant present between Gran Vía and Urzáiz, a huge snowman and the bright star of Bethlehem in García Borbón and a magical luminous castle on Calle Policarpo Sanz. 

The mayor of Vigo is a big fan of Christmas. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Zaragoza

For the past couple of years, Zaragoza has dedicated a budget of some €700,000 to decorate its streets for Christmas to give more colour and Christmas twinkle to its streets. Alfonso I is one of the best streets, where over 100,000 LED lights make a multi-coloured ceiling across the top of the road. There’s also a 22-metre-high tree located on La Plaza de Basilio, decorated with even more glowing lights.

Zaragoza’s Christmas displays don’t disappoint. Photo: Iramonf / Wikimedia Commons

Bilbao

The Basque industrial city of art and design is no exception when it comes to holiday lighting. The city streets are illuminated by around 500,000 LED lights ranging from around 8 metres to 18 metres high. It’s particularly attractive around the Casco Viejo and its Siete Calles.

Look out for statues of Olentzero, the Basque version of Santa Claus, who is a charcoal maker and comes to bring gifts to the children on Christmas eve.

Bilbao’s Christmas lights form a display of pictures. Photo: RAFA RIVAS / AFP

Santa Cruz de Tenerife

The largest city in Tenerife is known for its vibrant nightlife, so it’s not surprising that it puts on a good show at Christmas too. Around 140 of its streets and squares are lit in preparation for the season with around 3 million LED lights. 

Typically its decor is made up of 176 arches, 26,334 meters of colourful garlands and 686 Christmas symbols arranged on its lamp posts. One year the city even had a 90-metre-long tunnel made up of cascading coloured lights. 

Kids love looking at the Christmas lights in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

Seville

Like the capital of Andalusia itself, Seville’s lights are both classy and romantic and it’s a special place to enjoy this time of year. It may not have as many lights as nearby Malaga, but what it does do, it does well.

Some of the best places to see them include Plaza de San Francisco, Avenida de la Constitución, Sierpes e Imagen, Tetúan, Laraña, Campana, Plaza del Salvador, Asunción and Alfonso XII. 

Head to Seville to see its elegant Christmas lights. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

Valencia

Valencia is another great city to spend the holidays in Spain and puts on a great show with its Christmas lights. One of the most iconic parts of Valencia’s holiday season is the video mapping projected onto its town hall. 

Plaza de la Reina will have three-meter structures that are made to look like almond trees and there will be other festive elements like ice skating rinks and Christmas concerts. 

Head to Valencia this year to see its impressive displays. Photo: Valencia Igor Ferreira / Unsplash
SHOW COMMENTS