The Fiery Feast of
Sant Joan in Catalunya

🕔 9 mins (total)
La Verbena de Sant Joan is a pretty big deal in Catalunya.
La Verbena de Sant Joan is a pretty big deal in Catalunya.

The Feast Day of Sant Joan on 24 June is a Public Holiday in Catalunya and neighbouring Valencia and marks the beginning of the tourist season proper on La Costa Brava. Before there were ever tourists here though it was already an important date on the calendar. Long before in fact! 


Originally, way back in pagan times, this feast marked the summer solstice and was a “Midsummer” festival. Later, the Christian church, as they did with many other originally pagan festivals, such as Christmas, and All Souls’ Day, for example, co-opted the summer solstice into their calendar as the feast day of Sant Joan. And by the way, in case you’re not familiar yet with Catalan names, Joan isn’t a girl, he’s a guy. “Sant Joan” is “Saint John” in English, in this case, St. John the Baptist

As they did with Christmas, when they shifted the date slightly from the actual winter solstice on the 21st of December to the 25th, so they did with Sant Joan from the 21st of June to the 24th. Since the gospels tell us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, and Jesus’ birthday had been given as 25 December, so John’s was given as 24 June. 

Salome danced for the king in return for the head of John the Baptist.
Salome danced for the king in return for the head of John the Baptist.

Happy Birthday Joan!

John the Baptist is unusual in Christian saints as his feast day is on his birthday rather than on the supposed date of his martyrdom at the hands of King Herod at the behest of Salome, the little minx! In case you don’t know the story, here’s a summary.

King Herod of Galilee had married Herodias, the divorced wife of his brother, who had a daughter called Salome from that first marriage. John the Baptist had publically denounced the new marriage as it was forbidden by Jewish law to marry the divorced wife of your brother. According to the story, Salome was about 15 years of age and very beautiful. Encouraged by her mother, she performed the “Dance of the Seven Veils” for King Herod, her stepfather. When he asked her what she wanted as a reward, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, which she then gave to her mother. And that was the end of John the Baptist!

In the Christian religion, John the Baptist’s role as a prophet was to prepare the way for Jesus. It is believed that the Christian church’s choice of the solstices as the birth dates for both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ may have something to do with a supposed quote by John that said “I must decrease, He must increase”. Thus, if John was born on the summer solstice the length of the days would decrease after his birth, while they would increase following the birth of Jesus on the winter solstice.

Still pagan after all these years?

So, the Festa de Sant Joan may have been “taken over” by the Christian church, but many pagan elements of the original celebration linger on to this very day. It could even be argued that today’s festivities have lost their religious meaning for most people and are probably closer to a good old pagan shindig once again!

The main elements, or symbols, of the Festa de Sant Joan are fire, water and herbs. Herbs have always been used for remedies and it was believed that on the feast of Sant Joan their healing properties were enhanced a hundred times over, so herbs were traditionally picked on St. John’s night.

For the real purists, it was also believed that bouquets made with four specific plants – walnut leaves, immortelle, stonecrop, and the aptly named St. John’s wort – would bring good luck, good health and good fortune to their bearer. In times past, small bouquets made with those herbs used to be offered to loved ones to be kept throughout the year, but that tradition has largely lapsed nowadays. 

Water represents healing and so on the night of the 23rd, it was traditional to bathe in the sea. If you happen to be near a beach you may see many people jumping into the sea – although possibly for its sobering-up effect rather than any healing properties in this day and age!  

Sant Joan
The Flame of Canigó is carried to towns and villages throughout Catalunya

The Flame of Canigó

Of the three symbols, though, fire is, without a doubt, the most important. It has been used in Sant Joan celebrations here in Catalunya since at least the 12th century. One increasingly rooted and popular ritual is that of the Flame of Canigó. It was begun in 1955 by a certain Francesc Pujades, from just over the border in Catalogne-Nord (or French Catalunya) and its intention was to evoke the common identity of Catalan-speaking lands. 

A Pyrenean mountain peak called the Canigó had inspired a certain Mosén Jacinto Verdaguer to write one of the most important epic poems in Catalan literature back in 1886. In case you’re tempted to have a go at reading it, “Canigó” is an epic poem consisting of over four thousand verses in twelve cantos, plus an epilogue! It’s probably enough to know that it is about the birth of the Catalan nation in the Pyrenean valleys during the Carolingian era.

As Verdaguer was inspired by the mountain, so Sr. Pujades was inspired by the poem. He had the idea of ​​lighting the bonfire of Sant Joan at the top of the mythical Canigó mountain near his village and, from there, spreading the flame to Catalan towns and villages. That was in the mid-1950s, and the custom grew in popularity with each passing year. The flame crossed the Pyrenees for the first time in 1966, arriving in Vic, and, even despite the Franco dictatorship, the tradition spread throughout all Catalan-speaking territories as a symbol of Catalan culture.

Nowadays, the Flame of Canigó never goes out but is kept burning all year long in the Castellet de Perpignan (or Perpinyà in Catalan). On the Sunday before Sant Joan (or St. Jean in French), different delegations carry bundles of wood in the name of their villages to the summit.

Then, on the evening of 22 June every year, a group of volunteers leaves Perpignan with the flame, climbs the Canigó, and lights the fire around a cross at the summit, thus renewing its energy. The fire is tended by volunteers overnight, and in the morning, the flame is distributed among those present, who then take to the roads to distribute it to light the Sant Joan bonfires of about 400 Catalan towns on both sides of the border, as well as a few in neighbouring Aragón and Valencia.

The Flame of Canigó is spread by any means of transport possible and reaches its many destinations thanks to the efforts of local groups. Each town or city organizes the reception of the Flame with its own events, but at each destination, before lighting the bonfires, a common message is read out to remember the meaning of the ritual. Not the poem in its entirety though, or the party would never get started!

Sant Joan
Bonfires are traditionally lit on the eve of Sant Joan.


So, fire is definitely the principal element of the Sant Joan festivities. With the sun, which was a symbol of fertility and wealth, reaching its highest point at the solstice and then beginning its annual decline, the belief was that the lighting of bonfires would help replenish its strength. Fire also represented purification and renewed energy, and was believed in times past to ward off evil spirits that were at large on solstice and equinox nights when the veil between this world and the spirit realm was at its thinnest.

As well as the bonfires, fireworks, fire-crackers and bangers, are very common and kids (of all ages – and we mean all ages!) will start throwing these (sometimes quite annoyingly) in the streets of Catalan towns long before the sun goes down. The loud bangs were originally meant to scare away any witches or goblins. We’re pretty sure all the demons are gone by now, but the bangers remain!

The lighting of the bonfires is traditionally done throughout Catalunya on the night of the 23rd, St John’s Eve, or La Revetlla de Sant Joan, and that night is known in Catalan as the “Nit de Foc”, or “Night of Fire”. Festivities typically kick off around dusk, although people may gather even earlier in bars or restaurants to line their stomachs for the night ahead. Others gather on beaches and sit around a fire playing music, dancing and drinking beer (or whatever!), usually till dawn, and, depending on where you are, there may even be a proper fireworks display. 

Sant Joan is also a big event in the traditionally Catalan-speaking regions of Valencia (especially Alicante) and the Baleares (especially Menorca), as well as a bit further afield in Galicia, where bonfires also play a huge role in the celebrations of San Xoán, as he’s called in Gallego.

Some former Spanish colonies in Latin America still mark the occasion too, as do many Scandinavian and Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, where it’s probably the biggest fiesta of the year. Until relatively recently in Ireland, St. John’s Eve was known as Bonfire Night, especially in western counties. It was also customary to bathe in the sea, just like here in Catalunya, but this tradition has largely faded in recent decades. Maybe it was because that Atlantic sea was a bit too cold, but that’s definitely not an issue here on the Costa Brava!


Although the Festa (also called Verbena) de Sant Joan is always celebrated from the night of the 23rd into the early hours of the 24th, not all towns will have their fireworks displays on the same night. You should check within your local municipality to see what events are going on, but here are some towns that have an official event planned for the 23rd:

  • Blanes
  • Viladomat 
  • Torroella de Montgrí 
  • Port de la Selva 
  • Santa Cristina d’Aro
  • Pals
  • Castillo d’Aro-Platja d’Aro-S’Agaró – including an official fireworks display.

In L’Estartit, the Verbena de Sant Joan is a three-day event, 23-25 June, and incorporates the Ítaca Festival, while the port town of Palamós holds its annual Festa Mayor with St. John’s night as its launching point. Most other Costa Brava towns hold their festas mayores in July or August.

It’s party time at the Festa Mayor in Palamós!
It’s party time at the Festa Major in Palamós!

Festa Major, Palamós

Fair attractions and a craft market are set up about a week before Sant Joan, but things get officially going when the Flame of Canigó arrives at the Parc del Convent dels Agustins at 20:00 on the 23rd. Down at the beach, there are barracas with temporary bars erected along with a stage with live concerts at 23:00 each night, 23-26 inclusive. The Festa Major for 2024 ends with the fireworks display at 23:30 on the night of Wednesday, 26 June.

Best keep your pets indoors during the fireworks displays
Best keep your pets indoors during the fireworks displays


Most of us humans enjoy a good fireworks show, but the same cannot be said for many of our pets. The loud bangs and flashes of light can cause anxiety which can in turn lead to unwanted behaviours, such as urinating where they’re not supposed to, for example, and even affect their overall health in the worst cases. 

Some animals seem completely unaffected by fireworks, while others are absolutely terrified. It may be possible to desensitize your pet to loud noises like fireworks through training, but if you’re reading this in the run-up to Sant Joan, it might be a bit too late for that for this year! You could ask your vet about sedatives, but there are some simpler approaches that could probably work just as well. 

The most obvious is to close doors and windows and draw the curtains, especially if your pet will be at home alone during the display – including small windows that cats, in particular, might try to escape through if scared. Putting on some music helps block out the noise somewhat, with classical music or music with lots of bass being the best according to some experts. For dogs, bringing them for a good long walk in the afternoon helps, as a tired dog will probably get stressed less easily. Having a few of their favourite treats on hand will probably help too.

You need a pretty sweet tooth for a Coca de Sant Joan
You need a pretty sweet tooth for a Coca de Sant Joan

Coca de Sant Joan

As with just about every other festival or occasion in Catalunya, there’s a traditional dish to go along with it. In the case of Sant Joan, it’s a (usually) sweet one, called Coca de Sant Joan. “Coca” is a Catalan word that means “cake” or, probably more accurately, “tart” in English. This large, flat pastry is typically very sweet and made with candied fruits, marzipan and cream. Traditionally the cake would have been served with dessert wine, although cava is probably more common nowadays. An estimated 1.5 million cocas are sold each year during Sant Joan.

If you can’t handle all that sweetness, there are also savoury versions called “Coca de Llardons” (or “chicharrones”) with bacon and pine nuts, or “Coca de Recapte” with vegetables (such as peppers and aubergines), cheese, and sausage or fish (typically sardines, tuna or anchovies) that are not uncommon. The real purists say a true Coca de Sant Joan should be rectangular and exactly twice as long as it is wide, although once upon a time cocas were round with a hole in the middle to represent the sun. The story goes that those sun-worshipping cocas were seen as “too pagan” and so changed to rectangular. We’re not sure if that’s true, but it’s kinda funny if it is!

Happy Sant Joan everyone!

Share this story on:


You might also like