just a few days, Xàbia will be immersed in what
is arguably the biggest party of the year, the Fogueres
de Sant Joan, celebrations that not only honour Saint
John but also have their roots in more ancient
midsummer traditions. In 2016 we were asked by the Fogueres
Commission to write an article based on our experiences
and it appeared - in Castellano - in the official
booklet for the 2016 edition of the fiesta. It proved
to be a popular read with many people finding out how
outsiders saw their grand fiesta. So we've decided to
re-produce it - with a few edits and additions - to
bring it up to date.
We come from
a country where many ancient traditions have been largely lost in the mists of time.
These days fiestas, if they can be called as such, are largely limited to a modest
float parade and a travelling funfair in the municipal park for a week during
the summer or the occasional village fete and beer festival. Old customs and pagan traditions might survive in
the west and the north, the ancient Celtic countries, but they’ve largely
disappeared in other parts of the country as secularism becomes more widespread.
So, nothing would prepare us
for what we would discover for a couple of weeks in June each year in Xàbia.
And nothing would delight us more than getting involved with the Fogueres de
We came to Xàbia keen to
discover as much as possible about the town that would become our new home. And
we were eager to delve into the world of the ubiquitous Spanish fiesta,
something so alien to us but so essential to the identity of a nation which
simply wouldn't be what it is without it. There are
over 15,000 fiestas throughout Spain and it is said
that even if you attempted to experience one a day,
you'd be hard pressed to see them all in your lifetime.
However it would be nice to give it a try.
We were first aware of the
fiestas of Sant Joan when we used to come to Xàbia for family holidays. We
never got involved, we didn't feel it was our place to do so. In fact, when we
enquired at the tourist office for information about a parade, we were told in
no uncertain terms: “It'’s not for tourists!” We ignored the advice and watched
the procession of ‘quintàs’ roll in various states of sobriety past the post
office. It was enthralling. The video camera rolled, panning in all directions
to capture the experience. We also caught the occasional bull-running and
marvelled at the huge statues that were created in the Placeta del Convent.
Occasionally we were woken in the early hours by the noise of music, even though
we were staying in a holiday villa well outside the
town, but we
didn’t mind too much. We understood that it was fiesta and anyway we were on
holiday so we could sleep as much as we wanted.
It was only once we had made
Xàbia our new home that we started to try and understand what it is about Sant
Joan. For most foreigners, it was – and perhaps still is – all about the fire-jumping, the
fireworks and the burning of the statue and for our first few years it remained
just this for us. And then, after living for some years across the other side
of the bay, we moved to the town itself and our experience was totally
transformed. It had to be. We were now living in the fiesta and there was no
escape. The noise, the music, the smell. It was engaging
and we were determined to become
more involved and to stop standing on the sidelines looking in at all the fun.
We soon began to understand more as new friends were made and old traditions
explained. We got to know the characters of the fiesta, the officials, those
hard-working men and women who make the whole thing possible. And we also
discovered the ‘penyas’.
Oh! the penyas! So friendly.
So responsible for so many hangovers! But I don’t think one could find more
amicable groups of people. Many times we have been dragged not entirely
unwillingly into a casal to enjoy a drink or some food with the penya. Languages
might be different but the desire is the same: to forget the woes of the world
just for a few moments and enjoy life. Even if it does mean stumbling home
at sunrise! We experienced a different side of Spain that we thought we knew
but didn't entirely understand. We also experienced
the dubious delight of 'casalla', the 'Agua de
la Marina Alta', and shot of choice of the fiesta.
impression of the Pregón, the official start of the fiesta which normally takes
place on the evening of June 14th as the sun dips behind
the horizon, reminded us of another of our passions: football. The
penyas, in their team colours, would exchange friendly jibes and chants. The
gathering crowd in the church square swayed together as it would do on the football terraces
of yesteryear. A great cheer would
herald the arrival of the “home team” – the quintà - the protagonists,
those young people of Xàbia who would be coming
of age during the year. There was no malice; it was
all very good-natured. The music lifted spirits; it was hard not to get swept
away with the atmosphere. So we didn’t stop ourselves. After the opening speeches
from the Queen and Mayor which were greeted with
a huge cheer, the band began to play and, clutching
scraps of paper given out to the crowd, we tried to
follow the words of the traditional songs of "Fogueres"
and "Xàbia". During the rousing chorus
of the former, we felt ourselves lifted off the ground
as the masses jumped to the beat. It was an infectious
moment as fireworks filled the darkening skies and old
friends hugged each other and exchanged a special look
that said quite simply: "Let's get this party started!"
same evening, we
experienced the ‘Cants de Sant Joan’, the traditional singing to the images
of Sant Joan sitting in their niches in narrow streets
in the historic centre. Hundreds squeezed into those streets
the noise and the bustle took us by surprise but pleasantly so. The ambiance was
good-natured. People linked arms, sang and shared drinks. In the melee we
spotted the mayor and a couple of councillors. No pretensions. Everyone
together to honour the saint. The procession moved slowly and noisily through
the historic centre. The clock had long ticked past
midnight but the party continued. At each stop the crowd
sang their hearts: "Fogueres! Festejos que saben
a miel!" until we reached the church square. The
protagonists took to the steps and banter was exchanged
between 'quintos' and the penyas below them before the
band led the masses on the last stretch back to the
main square. We were almost breathless. The energy.
The enthusiasm. The camaraderie. Yes, we wanted more
And throughout the next few
days we watched and we learned and we gradually became more involved. We loved
the concerts in the square; you’d pay through the nose to see live music every
night. Some of the acts might not be to everyone’s taste but we knew that’s the
whole point – that there’s something for everyone! Sometimes we found ourselves
running between different areas of the town to catch something, just because we
wanted to find out for ourselves about the music, the dancing, the traditions.
Now and then we were dragged into another casal for another drink, another
glass of this magical ‘casalla’. What fun!
And as for ‘Nit dels Focs’!
Well, it’s almost indescribable but we have always tried our best! Fires in the
streets? If that happened in the UK, it would mean that a riot had broken
out! The searing heat of the fires on
the hot summer evening, the rhythm of the drums encouraging those to make the
leap of faith through the flames, sometimes with friends, sometimes with strangers
who would become friends. Let's have a shot of casalla to celebrate afterwards!
Six fires over which to leap whilst wearing the crown
of flowers. And the final huge bonfire onto which to
throw that crown and then stand back and let the 'quintos'
take centre stage. The firefighters control the
blaze but also cool down those watching for it is a
hot night. And it's not over yet. Masked devils
chase us around the streets with huge firecrackers spewing
bright sparks from the end. A man on a bike emerged
from a dark corner, his ride suddenly exploding into
bright light as sparks flew in all directions as he
rode through the crowd. What just passed behind me?
Was that really a iron bull, its metal horns alight
with bright flames? Uh-oh! The sky above has just
burst into bright light, sparks dropping in a fierce
waterfall through which we must pass! Watch out for
that figure lurking in the shadows at the sides! Where?
Oh there!! Run! And then we emerge in the main square,
the clock ticking quickly towards 3am. One final act,
the crowd jumping as one to the pounding drums; I swear
I can always feel the ground below me bouncing under
the sheer weight. And with final explosion, it's done.
The band starts up and we push through until dawn.
And finally the emotion of
the last night, the fireworks and the burning. As I said before, when we first
arrived in Xàbia, this was what Sant Joan was to us. We couldn't understand why
people had tears in their eyes as the flames gorged on the statues. But now we
do understand. Now we are the ones with a tear or two in our eyes. It’s the end
of a magical time for Xàbia. Are they tears of sadness for the end of the
party? Or tears of joy for having survived it? It doesn't matter because now we
understand the fiesta and what it means to the people of Xàbia.
Fogueres 2012, the idea of our own penya emerged. One evening whilst enjoying
some live music in the main square, we resolved to create one. We knew we
wouldn't be the first; a ‘penya britanica’ had existed in the 90s but was no
longer active. So we made our plans. But what to call ourselves? I called on
the help of my Spanish students to develop something that best described the
foreigner in Xàbia; they came up with the name "Com a Gambes Ens
Posem i En Festas Ens Bufem". They explained
that it described how us 'guiris' go red raw in
the heat, just like prawns do, and like to have few
beers during the fiesta (and any other time, in fact).
We made some T-shirts, bright red with our logo loud
and proud on the back, and revealed ourselves in
2013. The response was incredible and extremely positive.
And what better way to integrate with the local community
that by becoming involved in the biggest party of the
year in town. After a shaky start, we have grown into
a modest group of 'foreigners' who share a distinct
love of Sant Joan - and we not only have British expats
but also people from Sweden, Finland - and Madrid!
the past few years we have shifted from standing on
the sidelines to becoming almost full immersed in the
fiesta. We've entered the paella competition almost
every year, debuting our 'Paella Desayuno Inglés'
one year which didn't win but at the same time didn't
come last; we aiming for greater things for 2019. We
entered teams into the notorious 'Birratlon', the short
race around the historic centre whilst necking beers
at designated stops; despite our supposed reputation
for being able to drink, it appears we can't combine
it with running! We've joined other penyas for games,
lunches, dinners and much more. And we absolutely love
every minute of it. Just maybe not the casalla ...
XÀBIA I VISQUEN LES FOGUERES DE SANT JOAN!