It is not easy to give a single meaning to these festivities since they have a very long history and very strong roots in the most diverse cultures. In any case, it seems clear that they have a common origin: an important change in the solar cycle, as they always have to do with the summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere, of course): the shortest night of the year.
So, when is the night of San Juan? It is usually celebrated not on June 21st, but on June 24th. This is because, in Christian culture, this day celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist (hence the name), six months before (or after, depending on how you look at it) the birth of Christ.
And why do we celebrate the night of San Juan? In short, whether in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, or Latin America, this day is all about remembering the change of the season and holding some kind of celebration or ritual related to renewal, purification, or fertility.
Of course, it is often difficult to find the justification for such peculiar rituals as the ones mentioned below:
Paso del Fuego (San Pedro Manrique, Soria)
Surely you have already seen images and videos of this curious celebration that can make your hair stand on end, but it definitely deserves to be included in this list. At midnight on June 23rd, the most daring young men of this Soria town walk over the embers of a unique red carpet with the Móndidas on their backs.
What is the origin of this ritual and who are the Móndidas? In all likelihood, it is an initiation rite of Celtiberian origin and the maidens laden with fruits are representations of pre-Roman goddesses of fertility. Be that as it may, the fact is that the spectacle is really exciting, especially live. I wouldn't miss it if I were you.
Bath of the Goats (Puerto de la Cruz, Santa Cruz de Tenerife)
The Canary Islands are one of those Spanish regions wherein the festivities of San Juan are deeply rooted. Surely the most striking celebration is the one that takes place in this town on the morning of June 24th: very early in the morning, shepherds from all over the area arrive at the fishing port to give their animals a bath.
Although the origins of this festivity aren't all too clear, it seems that in this case the night of San Juan, linked to water (although the night before large bonfires called "fogaleras" are lit), is related to fertility rituals; thus, the objective would be to facilitate the "wallowing", that is to say, the rutting. The tradition went through a low point at the end of the 20th century but seems to be in good shape today.
If there is one thing that Cadiz and Denmark have in common, it is the rituals for the night of Midsummer; who would have thought, right? In Andalusia, bonfires at the edge of the sea and the burning of wigs, called "juanillos" or similar, are very common; we see it in Conil, Algeciras, La Línea, and some localities in Huelva such as Isla Cristina (they are the "júas" from Malaga).
Well, in Denmark they do something similar, but they burn the effigy of a witch and, instead of starting with bulerías, they sing the so-called Midsommervisen, a hymn from the 19th century. The festival has its roots in the most pagan Scandinavian tradition.
São João (Porto, Portugal)
Jumping over bonfires on the beach, eating and drinking between baths, and magical rituals is the most normal thing to happen on this night; you'll see it in Malaga, you'll see it in La Coruña, and even in the Mapuche villages of Chile. But if you're looking for a good Midsummer night, why not look for one that lasts six weeks?
Let's go to Oporto! The feast of St. John in Porto has a tradition spanning six centuries, but lately, they are getting out of hand: although the big day is still on June 23rd, with the famous fireworks over the Douro, they throw more than a month of celebrations of all kinds. If you join in this year, take a toy hammer with you, one of those that make noise. Be warned.
Midnight Sun Game (Fairbanks, United States)
If you like extremely weird things, you'll love this event. Have you heard of Fairbanks? It would have been one of those strange little American frontier towns, if it weren't located near the Arctic Circle, in the heart of Alaska. There are no bonfires or renewal rituals, or anything like that. Here the celebration is... baseball!
To commemorate the longest day of the year (and in this part of the world it's very long: 21 hours), the locals have been celebrating the so-called Midnight Sun Game for over 100 years. It's a sort of unofficial baseball marathon of almost 24 hours where the local team (the Alaska Goldpanners) plays against a guest team. What a weird tradition!
How will you be spending San Juan this year? Are you brave enough to jump over some bonfires?