June 23 is Donibane or San Joan bezpera, St. John’s Eve, a key date in the Basque calendar that celebrates the summer solstice eve, with the solstice itself a major occasion for the Donibane jaia or sanjoanak, St.John’s festivities in many towns all over the Basque Country. This is, in short, the sun festival, a celebration held all over Europe.

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Bonfires light the evening sky all across the Basque Country tonight

The pagan origins of the festival, which from the Middle Ages onward was imbued with a religious dimension, are clearly associated with the summer solstice and hint at rites representing notions of reawakening or rebirth. St. John’s Eve is typically associated with fire, with bonfires lighting up the night sky all over the Basque Country this evening. And for those brave enough to do so, jumping over these bonfires has been traditionally viewed as not just a demonstration of daring-do but also an act associated with a kind of ritual cleansing. Check out this video of the 2012 San Joan Suak (St. John’s bonfires) in Hernani (Gipuzkoa) here.

But fire is not the only element celebrated on this day.  People also cleanse themselves with the water from certain drinking fountains, streams, and ponds. And during the dawn of St.John’s Day itself, it is also considered lucky to tread the morning dew of the grass in some places. In Errenteria (Gipuzkoa), meanwhile, a soka dantza (rope dance) is performed. And in many farmsteads, there is a tradition of placing small ash tree branches, or laurel or hawthorn leaves over the front door of the house to ward off lightning strikes.

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Soka dantza in front of an ash tree on St. John’s Eve, Errenteria, June 23, 2013. Photo by Beñat Irasuegi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the many festivities associated with this day, as well as many other aspects of traditional Basque culture, see the introductory text, Orhipean: The Country of Basque, by Xamar (Juan Carlos Etxegoien). For more information on Basque culture in general check out the Center’s own Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives by William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika.