Monday, June 23, 2008

Saint John's night

AOG, Madrid

I have just experienced a magical and pagan night, unexpected, but welcome.

Tonight was St. John's night- alias the Summer solstice- the shortest night of the year. In Spain, they like to celebrate this date by making bonfires and jumping over them. It has all sort of magical connotations to do so.

I have spent a couple of hours in Las Vistillas, a park behind the San Francisco el Grande Church
, not too far from Madrid's royal Oriente Palace.

The church itself is famous because it is believed that St. Francis of Assisi once lived there inside a hut, back in the XIIth century on his way to Santiago de Compostela. It is a large building, neoclassical mostly, and it reminds me of a similar church in London's Knightsbridge- the Brompton Oratory.

Behind San Francisco's walls, perched as it is on the edge of a hill, there descends all the way down to the Manzanares river a park and garden called Las Vistillas.

It is there that the citizens of Madrid congregate to spend the shortest night of the year amidst a combination of Christian calendar date and profane ceremony.

So tonight was a special night. Pagan ritual aside- you must write a wish on a piece of paper, throw it in the fire, then jump over it- there was a great atmosphere.

People were playing drums, singing, laughing and drinking. Friends and strangers walked around from bonfire to bonfire, taking their turn to jump, or to throw something unto the fire, be it wishes or a piece of wood. Some where modest and some were a proper inferno! I suppose that if you are making a purifying bonfire, the bigger the better. One in particular, to my mind, was getting slightly out of hand, but it was a sight to behold. A large burning pyre with flames ever towering in size over people. Ritualistic and enthralling. Some people began to chant. At that point I had to smirk slightly. Here we were, almost all of us Western European, or at least, Western, and suddenly a dreadlocked girl, probably from Madrid, dressed in hippy garb which would not be out of place in Camden, starts to chant gibberish. Hala, ohelo, hala. Some of her friends did the same. I thought it was funny, but in the spirit of the evening, I moved on.

To top it all off, there was a thunderstorm in full swing. We arrived (my improv teacher, a classmate and I) just after it had stopped raining and the ground was very wet and sloshy.

The air was cool, and the breeze helped to blow away most of the smoke emanating from the bonfires which would have otherwise stayed with us. This is important since some of them were slightly toxic, given that you are also meant to symbolically and physically burn those things you no longer need. In many cases, plastic objects and old suitcases. Thus the toxicity of the affair and the need for a good wind.

Soon after we arrived, another group of friends of ours showed up. They too wanted to purify their soul.

After visiting and jumping over a few bonfires, it started to rain. Not a light rain. A rain of epic proportions reminiscent of the great flood. We went for cover under a tree but decided to leave. The rain only got worse. We decided to leave the bonfires and our friends.

When we got to the car we were soaked. We interpreted it all to be good omens. The fire purifies the soul and the rain cleanses it. All in all a good start to the year. I liked this alternative to the official calendar.

On the way home, for the first time in my life, I witnessed a blackout. I have lived through my fair share of these, but, for some reason, I've always been indoors. This time, however, I was driving through (or being driven through) a street when, suddenly, all lights went out. We drove through a dark avenue for a minute or so. It was very exciting. Something I've never experienced before. It happened again before I was dropped home.

I am feeling quite lucky to have experienced tonight. Next year I'm taking my camera with me. I missed it more than once tonight.


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