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Sant Joan: Night of coca, bonfires and flames!

Sant Joan announces the arrival of summer. Before that, the solstice of 21 June opens the astronomical door to summer and closes the winter door, directing us towards the good weather. So, we get together on the night of 23 June, Sant Joan, for a joint celebration.

There are many ways to celebrate this festival, which has pagan roots and lots of different local features, but fire is the central element in all of them. Fogueresfalles, etc. are the bonding element in the community, which gathers round the fire while eating a slice of coca.

In Barcelona the celebrations are really lively, with revetlles in the streets and squares, roof terraces packed with people launching rockets that paint the sky with light and colour, but the most eye-catching element, the one that stands out are the fogueres, the bonfires in squares and at crossroads round the city. Barcelona’s bonfires are built by local residents and associations that look for bits of wood and any old junk to burn. In times gone by, groups of children and teenagers competed to get hold of this flammable material and, if they had to, pinched it from the neighbouring bonfire so they could build a bigger one.

Today, after a period of decline, the numbers of bonfires in the city are growing as interest grows in theFlama del Canigó, the flame brought down from this Pyrenean mountain used to light all of them.

bonfire Sant Joan



The coca de Sant Joan is one of the most popular coques, yeast breads, in Catalonia and there are various kinds: sweetened with marzipan, cream or whipped cream and decorated with pine nuts, crackling or candied fruit. It is traditional to eat it on Sant Joan night, when it is shared out at the parties and accompanied by sweet or Rancio wine, though these days those drinks are giving way to cava.

The coca de Sant Joan derives from a tortell with eggs that people used to eat: a round cake that clearly recalled sun worship. According to the chef Ignasi Domènech, it must be twice as long as it is wide.

coca sant  joanMethod

Ingredients: 250 g strong flour, 200 g candied fruit (melon, orange, cherries, etc.), 75 g milk, 55 g soft butter , 55 g sugar, 25 g pine nuts, 20 g baker’s yeast, 2 eggs, half a cup of anisette, grated lemon rind, salt, sugar, oil and butter.

Dissolve the yeast in warm milk.
Add three spoons of flour and work it into a smooth dough. Leave it to rest until it has doubled in bulk.
Make a well with the flour on the pastry board and put the butter, eggs, sugar, salt, grated lemon and anisette in the middle.
By hand or using a fork, mix the ingredients in the middle, add the fermented dough and continue kneading it with the flour until you get a smooth, compact dough.
Spread it out on a baking tray coated with oil or butter. It should be oval-shaped and about 1 cm thick.
Brush it with egg, put the pieces of candied fruit over it and leave it to rest until it has doubled in bulk.
Spread the pine nuts on top, throw sugar over them and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes at 180º.




They say that fire drives out evil spirits, that it purifies, protects and regenerates. On the night of Sant Joan, fogueres, or bonfires, are lit when the sun goes down and kept going well into the night or early hours of the morning, with all kinds of junk that burns. Attracted by the fire’s magnetism, people gather round, sing and dance, while the most daring among them jump or tread over the embers. In the past there was a lot of competition between bonfires and rivalry often developed between groups who pinched wood off each other to make the biggest one.

The relationship between the summer solstice and fire goes back a very long way. We know that the earliest Mediterranean civilisations celebrated the shortest night of the year by lighting fires. Over the course of history this ritual has survived in different circumstances: it was adopted by Christians at the end of the Roman Empire, carried on thanks to the cultural permissiveness of the Arabs and, in harder times, it survived because of its roots in the family environment. In reality, the fire tradition is maintained thanks to its implicit social, collective and ceremonial character.

A variation on the Sant Joan fogueres are the falles, logs that, in some Pyrenean villages, are carried lit across the shoulder or rolled down the mountain to the square, where they are piled up to form fogueres.

The use of fireworks is one of the spin-offs from the fire ritual: on Sant Joan night various fireworks light up and explode, including flares, bangers, airbombs, firecrackers, conic fountains, rockets, catherine wheels, snaps and screamers, which all add light and noise to the festival. Remember the saying: “Qui encén foc per Sant Joan no es crema en tot l’any”. (Whoever lights a Sant Joan fire will not burn throughout the year.)




The Flama del Canigó ritual is gradually becoming more popular and more established. It combines with the Sant Joan midsummer celebrations to evoke the common identity of Catalan-speaking lands.

The fire of the Flama del Canigó (Canigou Flame) is never extinguished. It keeps burning throughout the year at the Perpignan Castellet until 22 June, when it is carried to the mountain’s summit. At midnight the fire from the flame is shared out among those present. Straightaway they set off, splitting and spreading the fire to light the Sant Joan bonfires in hundreds of towns, villages and cities.

On foot or horseback, by car, bike, boat and any possible means of transport, the Flama del Canigó reaches every corner of the land, thanks to the efforts of numerous groups and associations. Each village, town and city receives the flame in it own way, with music, devils, dance, etc., but always with a shared ritual. Everywhere, when the flame has reached its destination, before the bonfires are lit, a common message is read out to remind everyone of its significance.

This mobilisation requires a big effort to coordinate the routes the flame takes, complete all the paperwork and steps required to get the necessary authorisation and permits, and to publicise the movement so as to highlight and spread it. Obviously, all this work starts many months before Sant Joan, and some years ago now, Òmnium Cultural took on the central role as the body in charge of organising and promoting the activities hundreds of individuals, institutions and associations plan round the flame.

This ritual began in 1955, on the initiative of Francesc Pujades, who lived in Arles de Tec (Arles sur Tech). Inspired by “Canigó”, the famous poem by Jacint Verdaguer, he got the idea of lighting fires at the top of the mountain for Sant Joan and spreading the flame around. The custom spread rapidly and in 1966 it crossed the border with France for the first time, reaching Vic. Despite Franco’s dictatorship, the tradition gradually spread to all the Catalan-speaking lands, symbolising the survival of the country’s culture.

flama del canigo sant joan



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