The Night Of Fire

Observatory

We have reached Peak Sap. The longest day. The shortest night. The summer solstice. The highest point of fertility, after which the sun’s energy begins to wane and must be given a helping hand by the people of Catalunia, who celebrate this date each year with the night of fire in honour of St Joan, as they’ve been doing for 500 years.

They do so with fire, water and herbs, representing purity, healing and cure, because tonight as the people of this region hurl themselves into the water, their curative strength increases a hundredfold. There are devils. There are children with cinders in their hair. There are herbs, usually being smoked by the locals. There are firecrackers, not the tasteful discreet British kind but ones that sound like a Bren gun being fired next to your ear.

There is also a traditional flat-cake coca called a coque, rather like a pannetoni only with filling of aniseed paste, cream, candied fruit, pistachios, apricots and pork crackling. They are enormous, and so will you be after. (The one above is about a foot and a half long.)

Nobody sleeps on the night of St Joan. There’s the noise of course, and a lot of reckless behaviour. I once saw a man with a cake and a dog on a lead and a baby under his other arm, lighting an enormous rocket from the end of his cigarette, which was still in his mouth.

As Catalunia marks the the start of the end of summer, in Britain summer hasn’t actually started. Often we reach this day having barely seen the sun. I have never got used to the way in which our summer is more like an extended autumn. Give me stark Spanish or African sunlight, bare rocks, tough trees and amber earth. Coming from the city I have no affinity with damp, gloomy green British parklands. Give me fire and noise and life.

12 comments on “The Night Of Fire”

  1. Jan says:

    It’s weird that Solstice Eve is St Joans night in Catalunia.

    In Brittany and many other parts of Europe the day following solstice is St John’s Day. This Saint John not being of Matthew Mark Luke and John fame but John the Baptist. Would need to be a powerful Christian figure to “mask” such a powerful Pagan time and turn it in the direction of Christian worship.

    The fires go on through St John’s day – often being separated into three different types of bonfire. Weird thing isn’t it when you can pin point how pagan ceremonies are tweaked over into another form of worship.

  2. Joel says:

    it sounds absolutely fabulous, what a treat for you to have been there this year.

  3. Helen+Martin says:

    Here in Canada the Quebecois celebrate St. John on the 24th, thereby beating Canada by a week in celebrating. There used to be religious parades with costumed people on floats and there was feasting and so on into the evening. The celebration became very political, especially during the two separation periods and the religious aspect faded. I’ll bet they still make St John cakes, though, cakes baked in special pans in the shape of a lamb. The last thing to disappear from any festival is the special food connected with it. St John is Quebec’s patron saint and so many of the European settlers came from the Channel ports where he was a popular patron that it is logical to see it carry across the Atlantic, especially since ships setting out from France in spring could quite easily be making landfall by the end of June.
    I am guessing that the Eve of St. John in the poem is the other St. John (one of the others, that is) since we’ve got owls hooting in the cold and dark of January. Unless England was really experiencing a bad June and the poet lost track of his calendar.

  4. Jan says:

    Helen yes you are absolutely spot on there the thing we hang onto longest with most festivals and celebrations is the grub associated with them.
    Quite rightly really!
    Special food to celebrate festivals forms a very deep rooted connection.

    Local festivals and religious celebrations do get subverted or reinterpreted.

    To be fair though lots of Christian festivals were co opted from much earlier seasonal celebration which were ‘Christianised’ in the early Mediaeval period. Then reinterpreted over again as centuries passed by!

    Chris the Weather’s been just lovely here for a week or two – but has definitely decided not to shape itself for Glastonbury!

    It’s wonderful when we do get proper sunny summer weather. What’s even nicer (for me) though is the season’s I really like the wheel round of the weather throughout the year. I’ve always loved the season’s right through my life from being a kid. One of the things I liked most about the job was being out and about throughout the year. Freezing winters night’s through to brilliant summer’s mornings.

    When my nephews were very little even things like a windy or very wet day were sort of magnified for me by looking at them through the kids eyes.

    Hope your weather stays good over in Barcelona. Enjoy it!

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’m another lover of the seasons.
    I worked in Africa for a while, and got some funny looks when, after three months without rain, I stood smiling in a downpour at Gatwick.
    I thought mud was compulsory at Glastonbury.

  6. Jan says:

    I really ought to to be awarded as the Queen of the thickies “St Joan” is of course John the Baptist! This date being the big mans birthday ( allegedly) but liable to be another consummate sleight of hand trick by the early Mediaeval Catholic church…..let’s simply replace one fire festival with a Christian one! Just like that!

  7. Jo+e says:

    ‘It is one of the oddest and sometimes one of the most charming characteristics of English weather that at times one season borrows complete days from another, spring from summer, winter from spring. And it may be that these milky days of winter, which seem borrowed from April, are automatically filled with the sadness of things out of their time’

    Would one really be anywhere except England?

  8. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Helen, I will write this here because you might see it sooner than two blogs back should you look there again. You were right – it was cherries. snowy gave me a clue, but I didn’t understand it until it was explained a bit better. Then with the help of Google I got it.
    Also, I like your last two sentences about the poet losing track of his calendar. It gave me a chuckle.
    I have been in England in all sorts of weather. In 1980 it was the wettest June and July in 100 years. When my brother, who was with me along with his wife, saw a photo I’d take when you could see a bit of blue sky he said, “What day was that?”. I’ve had the sweat running down my back in rivers before it was even noontime. It’s just England, and I have never minded any of it.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    As has been pointed out with many other seasonal celebrations, the Catalonia ‘Night of Fire,’ also comes from a pagan festival — this one honouring the sun as a source of light and life and giving it strength with bonfires after it reaches its peak and starts to decline. The Aztecs believed that as “people of the sun,” it too needed nourishment, but in the form of human sacrifice, so it would not disappear. Which would probably explain why there are days on end in Britain without sun. Not enough human sacrifice. And no, living under a Boris Johnson administration doesn’t count.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    Another factoid. The Catalan coca flatbread or ‘coque’ which probably takes its name from the Dutch word ‘kok’ for chef or cook (The Netherlands was a Spanish possession for nearly a hundred years) or the Latin, ‘coquere,’ to cook, provides Spain with an entry in the pizza origination sweepstakes — competing with Turkey, Greece, possibly China and certainly Italy, for the first pizza. The Spanish claim strongly suggests that the Italian dish did not exist until the conquest of Naples in the 15th century by Alfonso the Magnanimous, the King of Aragon. Maybe Alfonso got his name by giving the Napoletani what became ‘pizza.’

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Joe, “Oh, to be in England now that spring is here” but I’ve always wondered about wanting to be in a wet, grey, dripping place with only the occasional rainbow to brighten things up. After the wettest spring in living memory here on the wet coast, today we had clear blue skies and a temperature of 28 deg.

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    Thank you, Barbara. I had just done the obvious and hit on Snowy’s link when I saw your post.

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