The São João Festival of Porto
by Eduarda Machado and Mário Correia
The month of June is marked by several popular festivals that celebrate the patrons of various places in Portugal. St. Anthony, St. John, St. Peter, are the saints who give name to the most prominent festivals of this time of the year. Every year, St. John the Baptist Day is celebrated on June 24th in various places on the planet. In Portugal, the tradition continues.
However, St. John is not the patron saint of the city of Porto, its celebration is due to different reasons, which we will present later. Although June 24th is the official holiday of the celebration, it is on the night of the 23rd that this festival has its greatest expression, bringing together hundreds of thousands of people in Porto’s downtown. From the end of the afternoon, after work, those who walk through the streets and alleys of Porto feel the excitement of the party, either in the smell of brazier and the first grilled sardines in the street, or in the colourful decorations that fill the facades of the historical Porto. From an early hour, balloons (similar to oriental lanterns) appear on the horizon, thrown by anxiety for the party that has not yet begun, but as soon as night falls will fill the entire Porto’s sky. At dinnertime you hear the first hammering – strangers greet each other banging the coloured plastic hammer on each other’s heads. Leek garlic, a plant, serves the same purpose, but everyone runs away from its smell in joyful laughter. The music begins at 22h, extending until dawn with small stages spread all over the city. There are carousels, “farturas” (popular sweets) and fireworks at midnight. Young people jump on fires along with laughter and folk songs. Summer comes to the city through traditions of various origins and people are blessed by the intense dew.
Between the need to keep alive a party that is part of the identity of Porto and the attempt to attract tourists, which in recent decades tend to increase and have become one of the largest sources of income to the city, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of these traditions. Professor Luís Carlos Amaral (Faculty of Arts, University of Porto), born and raised in Porto, an expert in medieval history , accepted the invitation of IPM Monthly to answer some questions that help rediscover the true history behind the tradition. The following is a brief summary of the interview with our guest, who gave us his enthusiastic and deep knowledge of the history of this festival. The interview was conducted by Mário João Correia (editor of IPM’s section “Hot Off the Press”).
What ‘s the origin of “São João” festival?
First of all, it is important to say that it is St. John the Baptist, not the Evangelist. His importance in the Church is, of course, due to the idea that he is the precursor of Christ. From the date of Christ’s birth, if we count six months back (from what is said in the Gospel of St Luke), we arrive at June 24th as the date of birth of St John. It is close to the summer solstice, and so the pagan element of the entrance into summer, celebration of fertility and harvests was associated with the figure of St. John the Baptist: an attempt to Christianize the Roman festivities.
Why is it the great festival of the city if Porto’s patrons are Our Lady of Vandôme and Saint Pantaleon?
It has always been a feast of all Christendom and is celebrated uniformly on June 24 at least since a series of reforms related to the Roman rite in the 11th century. It is not known for sure when it became of special importance to Porto citizens, but there are some clues. The first part of the Chronicle of King John I, by Fernão Lopes, makes a direct allusion to a great feast on the eve of Saint John in Porto in 1384. But there is no evidence that it was an especially large feast or that it stood out from other religious and popular celebrations. There is another important element that can help to explain the centrality that this festival has gained: the municipality of Porto organised the institutional and administrative year from Saint John to Saint John at least since the fourteenth century (this is known by the Atas de Vereação [ minutes of the council of the city]) On June 24, elections were held for the distribution of the municipal offices. Putting it all together, St. John’s Day, at least since the end of the 14th century, was already enshrined as a particularly important day for the city. From here, it has always been growing, but in fact, what we see today is the result of the 20th century.
Could you explain a little bit about each symbol that we usually associate with this festival?
1) “Alho porro” (leek), the herbs in general, especially basil and lemon verbena, and their recent substitute, the hammer with the whistle.
The herbs have an obvious sexual nature. They are not an exclusive of São João, and are associated with fertility and harvest festivities. What may be puzzling is its survival over time: we live in secular societies, the religious dimension has gone to the background (we do not think about asking the favor of gods for a good harvest), but these elements remain. The hammer itself resembles a phallus and there were even some sweets that were made in the form of a phallus. Like all popular parties, this party is also an “escape valve”, it is a day to commit excesses. In a more controlled world like Portugal before 1974, one of the small pleasures people had was to hammer a policeman in the head, something that would not be acceptable on any other day, but on that day, there was no harm: it was a controlled risk stepping.
2) Eating sardines
This time of year, there is a large influx of sardines on the Portuguese coast and therefore it made perfect sense that in a great feast we would eat what is proper of the time. In addition, it is a popular party, and the sardine was a cheap, affordable fish that everyone ate. This party was never appropriated by the elites. The religious element of the feast might have led to an attempt to “domesticate” it, but on the one hand, with increasing dechristianization this became impossible. On the other hand, this feast has an interesting internal contradiction: it celebrates John the Baptist, an ascetic, perhaps the most radical, and so it would be an opportunity to proclaim morality, moderation and good manners but at the same time, it is the occasion to escape for a few moments from all that, to commit some excess, a little like Carnival. St. John the Baptist is the opposite of the party! The popular festival, with its many pagan traits, dominated over the figure of St. John.
3) “Quadras populares” (popular poetry), “rusgas” (a march of the several parishes of the city), “cascatas” (something like a Christmas crib) and fireworks
They are all very recent things, from the 60’s, which were being promoted locally by newspapers, civil society, various neighbourhoods, with the intention to try to create an identity, be it a shared identity, be it the identity of the “little homelands”, the neighbourhood, the street. With the development of tourism, there is also this need to mark or further increase these differentiating elements.
With the “cascatas”, it’s the same. It is evident that it comes from the Christmas cribs (the “presépio”), which has a long tradition of Franciscan origin, and which acquired a particularly large scale as a cultural and artistic phenomenon in Portugal, especially from the seventeenth century on. There were great artists making highly complex and rich Christmas cribs, palaces adorned with it, etc. “Cascatas” are a popular appropriation of this phenomenon that had become inaccessible, elitist. All these things are little fashions that are added across time. Some come and some go away.
4) Jumping the fire and the balloons
Since the Middle Ages there have been references to the bonfire in St. John’s everywhere. The bonfire and the balloon are, of course, associated with fire, and fire is always associated with purification. The fire clears everything behind it, it clears the path to the future. Besides that, it is light. The bonfires are made at night to overcome the darkness with the light. Finally, the jumping of the bonfire was for centuries a demonstration of virility, of courageous overtaking of an obstacle. Of these symbols, this is perhaps the greatest commonplace. It is part of humanity to associate fire with purification, to novelty, to light, to signs that we all recognize. Of course, it was also a Christianized symbol associated with Easter.
What changed over the years?
Some traditions stay, some go, some are transformed. For example, something that changed a lot was the fact that the party had dispersed throughout the city. For a long time, the great concentration of people was in Fontaínhas (and to a lesser extent, Miragaia and Massarelos). Now there is a big concentration in Porto’s central avenue (Aliados), in front of the city hall, and everywhere near the river and Luís I bridge, where fireworks are launched. The party has become bigger, it dispersed through the whole city.
Another example: the sardine was cheap, now it’s expensive, and other competitors appear, such as “febra”, grilled pork meat. Leek garlic and feathers wet in red wine are dirty and smelly, and so the hammer became more attractive and fun. All these changes are a way to update the festival and to keep it attractive.
What’s the importance of this festival to the city of Porto?
This festival , and popular festivals in general, were very important and remain very important, but the reason for their importance change. This interpretation is very personal, but in the 19th century and in much of the 20th century, it was important as an identity element in the face of a series of identity crises across Europe. In Portugal, the French invasions, the English rule that followed, the liberal revolution, followed by the loss of Brazil, followed by a brutal civil war, generated a huge identity crisis. The country was fractured until the proclamation of the First Republic and also after it. Unlike other cases, the issue was not so much to find a national identity (Portugal is perhaps the European country closest to the model of the nation-state), but to know where the country was going, what was its viability, its future. It is no accident that at the end of the 19th century, dozens of Portuguese intellectuals committed suicide in the face of the lack of direction. These successive crises led to the need to create identification mechanisms, whether with the country, with the city or with the neighbourhood. Popular festivals such as São João are the consubstantiation of this need to wear a skin. And that need is all the greater the more the identity is in crisis. Perhaps that is why, after April 25th 1974 (end of dictatorship), Futebol Clube do Porto also became an identity element for Porto. Perhaps it is also the pressure of tourism and the fact that the identity of the party itself is, in a way, at risk, that make Porto people feel so much need to perpetuate São João and to live it as their own. But maybe this is a sign of alert: when you try to save something, it’s because you don’t believe in it much anymore…