São João at Oporto 2014

Hello friends and Zazzlers!

These past two weeks went pretty fast. I went up north where fun is annually guaranteed for a couple of days and most especially from the 23 to the 24th. It's São João, one of the biggest street festivals in Europe!

The festival of São João is celebrated in several Portuguese cities-in the city where I live, Figueira da Foz, in Braga, where I lived all my childhood, and in Porto. ( And maybe in several others!) In these three cities, it’s a local holiday. Brazil, Quebec, and Newfoundland also celebrate it. São João takes place on the night of June 23 and it’s Porto’s most important celebration. This is a big street party where you can find a mix of all ages, from elderly couples to young children. For me, it’s a time to get together with friends I have at Oporto and have great fun. I love everything about this festival - the simple but tasty food, the fun walk through the streets towards Ribeira hitting strangers' heads with the hammer, the buying of basil to have in the house in June, the street decorations…Let me tell you about it!

1. Origin of São João

It goes back to the pagan rituals of the summer solstice. The pagan festival was held in honor of the sun god and in commemoration of harvests and abundance, it was later appropriated by the Catholic Church which turned it into a catholic party in commemoration of St. John, the baptist. São João is one of the “santos populares”, - the popular saints - António (Anthony), João (John), and Pedro (Peter), whose commemoration days fall in June.

2. Decorations

Preparations for the festival begin several days before the big night. If you walk the narrow streets of Porto districts near Ribeira you will find colorful paper decorations displays on many houses. Some streets also get themed light decorations. As for the commercial buildings, there’s a contest for the best shop window decoration also.

3. Food

From the afternoon onwards you can’t miss the smell of grilled sardines on every corner of the street. You will find the dish in most restaurants or even street stalls prepared just for the day. Families will set a barbecue going in the backyard, in the garden, or even on the street! For starters you can eat a caldo verde soup, it’s Portuguese cabbage sliced thin! Eating freshly grilled sardines and meat treats with family and friends is mandatory. You can eat the sardines with boiled potatoes or on top of dark bread. Don’t miss the grilled green peppers served with some nice Portuguese olive oil! I also enjoy a good tomato salad. I usually drink ice-cool beer or wine with it. As for dessert, I can’t find any room in my stomach for it after! On the 24th the traditional dish is roasted lamb and roasted potatoes or rice.

4. Where it happens

Around midnights you must be at Ribeira do Porto or Ribeira de Gaia where the port wine cellars are, or any other spot with a nice view over the Douro and Dom Luis bridge. The festivities culminate with 15 minutes fireworks display. Lights exploding in the night sky and their reflection in the waters of the Douro River are quite a show. If you want a place down there you must arrive early. Until midnight you can hang around Sao Bento station and at the Avenida dos Aliados. This is the place where many of the stalls and entertainment stages are located. You will find live music varying from pop and rock to traditional fado. After the fire people will roam to the beaches that flank the city to the west. The Praia dos Ingleses, at the opening of the Douro Estuary, is where many of the revelers head and stay until dawn. Bonfires are lit on the beach and the youngsters jump over the flames. Before the sun rises the most courageous will take a sea bath!

4. Rituals and traditions

- São João hot air paper balloons - Launching flame-propelled illuminated lanterns into the sky with the help of friends. This is reminiscent of the pagan cult to honor the sun god.

- The plastic hammer - You can't miss this weird and funny hitting plastic hammers on the heads of passers-by or making sounds with it by hitting one's hand palm. The most successful of the modern props of São João. It was invented in 1963 by the owner (Manuel António Boaventura) of a plastics factory in Porto. His inspiration was a plastic salt and pepper pot he saw on a trip abroad. He planned just to add another toy to the store but the hammer got popular first with students and then with São João’s revelers.

- The garlic flower - Don't go waving garlic in people’s faces! It stinks! To do that you must use herbs that smell nice. The practice of hitting each other in the head ― supposedly those to whom one feels attracted ― with a plastic hammer or garlic flowers has its origin in an ancient pagan courtship ritual. But it also stands for good fortune. In the old days, people would take the garlic home and keep it behind a door thus believing it would keep the evil eye out!

- Bonfires – Most young people still enjoy jumping bonfires on the beach or sometimes even on the streets to prove their courage as well as their belief in the purifying virtues of fire to bring good health, happiness, and a healthy marriage. This bonfire jumping is reminiscent of the pagan cult to honor the sun god.

- Basil and popular poetry - Offering your girlfriend a "manjerico" is the tradition. But now everyone buys it to have at home. It will not last! I bought mine on June 1st. It still looks great! But in a month it will be gone. These potted basil plants are decorated with popular poems. Manjerico smells very good and you should not use your nose to smell it or it will dry faster. Instead, you should caress it with your hand and smell your palm. It's also called "Erva dos namorados" or sweethearts herb.

- The herbs, like lemongrass – Herbs were considered to have the power to bring health, luck, and fortune. When walking on the streets you can give the herbs to others to smell, not the garlic. People often forget this! I don't see many people buying herbs on the street. But vendors still have it for sale like in the old days when farmers came from the surroundings especially to sell it near the Douro river.

- Cascatas S. Joaninas - Traditional St John’s painted ‘models’ and typical scenes. It can be a very complicated work or a simple one. You must have water somewhere when you create a "Cascata". (Cascata also means water and it refers to the river Jordan.) The water is symbolic and stands for renovation and purification.

 Cascata from Hotel Paris
                                       Cascata from Hotel Paris
                                        Cascata found near Ribeira

- Rusgas de São João - A competition where each parish (freguesia) of the city of Porto (there are 15) competes. The raid consists of a toccata and a minimum of 30 people ranging costumed to represent the "rusgas" of other times. There is a parade and a performance.

- Regata de rabelos – On 24th don’t miss the annual regatta of barcos rabelos, the low wooden boats once used to transport port wine from the mountainous Douro valley to the port wine lodges.

- The morning bath in the ocean - Revelers traditionally bathe in the ocean the next morning, thus nursing hangovers! It must be done before sunrise in order to bring good health! The water is symbolic and stands for renovation and purification.

- Orvalhadas de São João - It is said that the light rains on the night of S.João - the "orvalhadas" - are saint and bring good health and happiness. So no one can't go to sleep before it! Water has an important role in the celebration.

- The fireworks - Reminiscent of the pagan cult to honor the sun god.
Contest Martelinhos de São João

This year São João was even more special than usual for me because I won 1st prize in 3D category at Fundação da Juventude's Martelinhos de São João contest. This contest was held for the third time. We are asked to re-invent the traditional São João´s hammer. I created a quilled hammer and incorporated some of the main São João's symbols. It's 650 stripes of paper! I cut and glued each one because I just have a X-acto knife. I picked bright colors, the blue from River Douro and the green from manjerico is predominant!