August 4, 2014

Fiesta de San Juan: Contemplations on History & Culture

Aaaah, traditions. Much like language, religious beliefs, social conventions, and other defining aspects of human cultures, their origins can be hazy. Many of the celebrations we observe today are the result of hundreds of years of cultural and religious confluence, as evidenced by the many similarities among traditions across countries in various parts of the world. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are excellent examples of early Christianity's success at adapting existing pagan celebrations to their religious calender, giving age-old traditions new meaning. Nowadays, most folks don't give a second thought to egg hunts and chocolate rabbits on the anniversary of Jesus Christ's resurrection. But clearly, there are several very distinct historical influences at play in our modern-day traditions.

Moving to Paraguay has introduced me to another of these fascinating holidays, one which is little known in the U.S. but widely celebrated in Europe and Latin America: St. John's Eve. It is the eve of St. John's Day - that is the day St. John the Baptist is supposed to have been born (June 24). Now, when the holiday was introduced to me here in Paraguay, I did not make this connection to St. John the Baptist. Further research had to be done. I was simply told it was the Fiesta de San Juan, which takes place in June, and includes traditional foods and games. After having spent a lovely time with my boyfriend's family partaking in said traditions, I became curious. What's the history behind this beloved holiday?

When I initiated my Google search, I figured I was going to learn about something oh-so-Paraguayan. Quite the opposite. While each country has taken and made of this holiday it's own, it is popular in many countries, particularly Northern Europe. If you've got the gist of my post thus far, it probably won't surprise you that this holiday has pagan roots. Mid-June, of course, is Midsummer. Well, in the Northern Hemisphere, at least. Here, it would be Midwinter. Either way, it is a significant time of year. In the northern latitudes, the Summer Solstice marks the longest day and shortest night of the year - a major turning point for the sun which then begins its long descent into winter. This was important for our European ancestors.

Many Midsummer and St. John's Day celebrations take place sometime around the Summer Solstice, usually between June 21-25. Here in Paraguay the dates are loose, too. Sometime in June, schools, towns, neighborhoods and families organize events as best suits them. While each country has a specific set of unique cultural traditions, one of the common themes among St. John's Eve celebrations worldwide is fire. In Europe, bonfires are set. Here in Paraguay, a ball is set on fire and kicked about the neighborhood. Another traditional activity is walking on hot coals. In many towns and neighborhoods the ball-on-fire has been restricted, for obvious reasons. Other fun activities include include trying to break open a clay jar piñata full of treats with a pole while blindfolded and competing with others to climb a greased post with some type of reward at the top. There are a great many other traditions (one of the other common themes seems to be weddings) and plenty of traditional food, which I had the opportunity to enjoy just recently (our Fiesta de San Juan was particularly late this year). And apart from the old traditions, there are always good, fun, family-friendly games for all to enjoy.

One interesting thing to note about these Paraguayan traditions, is that they all have Guaraní names. Guaraní is an indigenous language, estimated to be spoken by more than 80% of Paraguayans, and one of Paraguay's two official languages alongside Spanish. Many Paraguayan customs and foods are the result of a fusion of indigenous and European (mainly Spanish) cultures. It's hard to know which had more influence on the ball-on-fire tradition, though.  More research is needed.

Cooking chipa asador over open coals. A simple dough of corn four, manioc (cassava/yuca) starch with cheese and fat.