I was told that in celebration of the longest day of the year there would be bonfires on the beaches of Spain. Turns out that the celebration is almost worldwide and from country to country its festivities change as well as the date. Between the dates of June 21st and June 24th each year, people all over the world gather to honor the birthday of Saint John the Baptist.
My friends told me about this amazing experience, and that I needed to come photograph it. Of course I was so excited to go, I wondered if I might be stepping on hot coals, or if I might go sea bathing. I am always curious to know more but sadly I didn’t experience anything like what I thought. I thought I was going to a religious festival where there would be huge bonfires and amazing sculptures that took months to build burning in front of me. I thought that there would be people praying and that there would be a sense of order to the madness that surrounded the night air. I thought that this day would help me see into the heart of desperate people that live around me everyday. Maybe to some St. John’s Day is still a time to turn loose of the vices that entrap us daily, but on the coast of southern Spain in a beautiful little spot called Puerto Sherry I didn’t see anything religious at all.
About midnight on the ancient Roman summer solstice (the eve of St. John’s Day) I finished a remarkable day of shooting with some new friends. The street below their home overlooking the Bay of Cadiz was filling up with sounds, cars honking, people dancing and singing, and fireworks exploding from the surrounding cities. The acoustics of the ocean made the fireworks burst in our ears, prompting us to end the photo-shoot and head down to the beach. I gathered a flashlight, my camera, a tripod and headed out with my friends to meet the enthusiastic crowd.
I will be honest I was eager to see something amazing, something that showed a devotion to a purpose but with the exception of dunks jumping over meager fires I found nothing to peak my interest. For me being devout in my faith and rather skeptical of religion at times, I hunger to see others with strong faith outside of themselves. It is encouraging and invigorating to see others attached to a dream and working together for a common goal. So it was disheartening to me that a religious holiday is nothing more than a chance to party. Perhaps there are some that are using it as a time to visit with friends and family but I was disappointed, to see that at 2am in the morning people were only just arriving with their small children and infants, and smelled more of beer and cigarettes than they did anything else.
According to all the research I found, St. John’s Day is supposed to be a time where bonfires are lit near the ocean to confuse evil spirits and send them out of the country. Each country has a different tradition, in Spain they gather healing herbs such as Rosemary and St. John’s Wort to place over the door ways to ward off evil spirits. And at midnight as the sun is finally going down everyone gathers to the beach where fireworks are lit and bonfires are blazing to drive out the darkness. Their folklore states that jumping over the fires three times and then writing out your sins and throwing them on the fire will then purge you of your evil. After doing so you must wash your self in the ocean, allowing nine waves to submerge you as a symbol of your sins being washed away. As a bonus, woman desiring children may also become fertile by bathing in the night ocean.
I know this isn’t my usual posting but I can say this. I am honored to have lived in this country and experienced so many wonderful things in my stay here. I am challenged to live life a bit more simply when I arrive home because they have taught me how to live at a slower pace. I am so driven in my passions that I often don’t go without sleep or food. Here they enjoy life because to them life should be enjoyed no matter what. While that is a good thing, to me life should be enjoyed because it is a gift, guarded through preservation that can only be tended to by the guidance of love. I am sure they are right in their own way, though I feel apathy was smothering me as I watched them more interested in themselves than the tradition of their faith.
The truth is, I was an outsider looking into their world not a participant, and as an outsider it is easy to judge which I know isn’t my place, my place is to love. So hear my heart, I love Spain, I love the olives here, I love Spaniards enthusiasm for life, I love the long days and wet winters by the sea, I love the gardens and I love that there is just something special about this piece of land. I love that my son was born here, and I will miss it! My prayer is that religious traditions wouldn’t matter to Spaniards, but that they would experience the heart of God and through their faith alone evil would be driven away from them, their country would prosper, their freedom to party through the night would be preserved, and their families would have an abundance of love.