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San Juan, Night of Fire and Potions
Celebrating the summer solstice in Spain.
Hello, wonderful witches!
The summer solstice is upon us! How are you planning to celebrate Litha? I’ll be in Newfoundland, Canada, whale-watching with someone known locally as the “Whale Whisperer” — though I fully intend to do a little ritual sans-whale when I’m back in my hotel room.
Today, we’ve got an article from Kiki, the brilliant writer who runs. It’s all about the solstice festival in Spain, and includes a recipe for a drink you can use to toast the longest day of the year.
Fire and Potions at the San Juan Festival
By Kiki T
As a child, I was fascinated by witchcraft. Curled up in a corner alongside the musty books of my local public library, I would eagerly read about spells and seances, tarot readings and fortune tellers, and other rituals associated with the spirit world. When in fourth grade my dad found a book on the occult in my school backpack and forced me to return it that very afternoon, I shifted my focus to reading about historical “witches” like Joan of Arc and surreptitiously watching The Craft on my 13-inch RCA TV.
While my consumption of media related to clairvoyance and wizardry waned over the years, I never fully lost my interest in magic. Because of this, I tend to seek out the supernatural and odd histories of places — after doing the prerequisite research on important monuments of a travel destination, I undoubtedly end up in a rabbit hole about abandoned subterranean passages, clandestine taverns, and ancient rituals. And that’s what drew me to investigating the festival of San Juan, a traditional summer celebration observed in my current home of Spain.
Thoughts of Spain in June may bring up images of flamenco and sangria, but if you travel to the Spanish coasts near the end of the month, you’re much more likely to see bonfires and flaming potions. On the night of June 23, the Spanish celebrate the festival of San Juan, which is associated with the summer solstice. Originally observed by pagans, the festival was moved by the Catholic Church to coincide with the birthday of Saint John in an attempt to christianize the celebration.
One of the most well-known traditions of San Juan is the preparation and drinking of la queimada. The queimada is an alcoholic drink that functions as a potion of sorts, and is lit on fire before you indulge. It is said to have curative properties as well as the ability to ward off evil spirits. Below you can find the traditional recipe. The main ingredient is a Spanish pomace brandy called orujo, which is available in some specialty wine shops in the US.
1 liter Aguardiente de Orujo
150 grams granulated sugar
1 whole lemon or lime peel
1 handful coffee beans (optional)
Pour all of the ingredients into a large pot (preferably made of clay) and gently stir. To light the queimada, take a ladle and fill with part of the mixture. Add a bit more sugar to the liquid in the ladle, then use a match or lighter to ignite. Once it’s burning, slowly lower the flaming ladle into the pot so that it sets fire to the rest of the mixture.
As the queimada is flaming, it is tradition to recite a spell, or conxuro, while slowly stirring the potion. Here is an excerpt of one of the most popular conxuros, translated from the original Spanish version:
With this pot I raise the flames of this fire to symbolize the fires of Hell
and the witches shall be purified of all their evils.
Many will flee riding on their broomsticks
to drown themselves in the Sea of Finisterre.
Listen! Listen to the roars…!
It’s the witches that are being cleansed in these spiritual flames…
And when this delicious potion slides down our throats,
we will also be free of the evils of our soul and all our curses.
Powers of the air, earth, water, and fire!
We call out to you:
If it’s true that you are more powerful than humankind,
purify our land of evils
and make it so that the spirits of our friends departed
share with us this queimada.
Potions are not the only thing people set alight on San Juan. The celebration is also a time to cleanse your life of things that no longer serve you. To symbolize this, many people write a list of things they wish to expel from their lives and then burn the paper until only ashes remain. The most valiant celebrants turn to bonfires, or hogueras: it’s said that if you jump over the blazing woodpile you will be purified, with your energy renewed and your problems reduced to embers.
While fire may be the most popular symbol of San Juan, its opposite element — water — also has a place in the celebration. Many festivities take place on the sands of the coastline, and traditional rituals often culminate with a swim in the sea to wash away evil spirits. Others choose to celebrate by cleansing their faces with water infused with the seven traditional herbs of San Juan: fennel, rosemary, fern leaves, codeso, mallow, lemon verbena, and St. John’s wort.
Several years ago I attended the San Juan festival in the port town Ciutadella on the Spanish island of Menorca. The town’s celebration is less ancient witchcraft and more medieval aristocracy. There, people gather in the main plaza to watch equestrian riders parade their horses in front of the crowd. Mesmerized by the noble animals, it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized people all over Spain were reciting spells and drinking tinctures that very same night.
While I likely won’t be jumping hogueras any time soon, a San Juan celebration on the beach just might be in my destiny. In the meantime, you can catch me gathering my herbs and writing my burn list, with water and fire to cleanse the past, facing toward the future.
Kiki T is a Virginia native who lives in Madrid with her Spanish partner and American cat. She writes about her culinary adventures and musings on food culture through the lens of an American living in Spain in her newsletter Come como Kiki, which you can check out here on Substack. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
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