June 24th The Festival of São João
Written by Stephen Guild
If you are in Pernambuco in the middle of June, you will no doubt see people dressed in farm clothes, women’s false hair in braids, men and women suddenly-freckled, and bonfires all over. What’s going on here? Is this a country version of Carnival? Well, yes – and no. Welcome to São João, the annual celebrations that take place in the beginning of the Brazilian winter, with the actual São João’s Day occurring on June 24.
For centuries in Europe, pagan festivals honoring the summer solstice offered up food, drinks and animals to Juno, the god of fertility; dances; and bonfires to scare away the evil spirits. The Catholics transformed these Festa Junina into days to honor several saints, especially São João. While the São João festival was introduced by the colonial Portuguese, and particularly the Jesuits, in the early 1500’s, the event also coincided with Brazilian Indian rituals related to agriculture and the harvest during in the same time of the year.
Even though it is most associated most closely with Northeastern Brazil, it is celebrated today throughout the country and, other than Carnival, is the nation’s most important celebration. Although many Brazilians visit family in the rural areas during the season, São João festivities are popular in urban areas and among all social classes.
Those working in the southern part of the country often ask for extra time off to travel to the Northeast. It is so important in the Northeast that in 1993, on the eve of an important vote in Brasilia, the government guaranteed Northeastern legislators special flights so they would be home on the night of June 23!
These festivities celebrate rural life and feature typical clothing, food, music and dance and, of course, the bonfires. Men dress up as farm boys with suspenders and large straw hats and women wear pigtails, freckles, painted gap teeth and red-checkered dresses. São João coincides with the corn harvest, so special dishes made with corn, such as canjica and pamonha, are served during São João.
During the entire month of June, night or day, Brazilian country music, with the chords of the accordion, the triangle and zabumbas, can be heard. Since São João is partially a celebration of marital union, the most common dance is the quadrilha (similar to square dancing) that features couples forming around a mock wedding whose bride and groom are the central attraction of the dancing. In Recife, where the emphasis is more on musical performances and concerts, during June of this year (2009) more than 500 concerts with 300 artists will take place at venues throughout the city.
Bonfires and fire in general are one of the most important features of these festivities, remnants of Midsummer pagan rituals. In Caruaru, what is touted as the “World’s Largest Fire,” more than seventeen feet high, burns for at least 48 hours
Caruaru (in the state of Pernambuco) boasts of the “Biggest São João Festival in the World” and is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the biggest outdoor country festival. The village of Caruaru is decorated in bright colors and on St. John’s Eve, there is a large parade, with more than twenty floats that reproduce scenes from everyday northeastern life.
There is a train (The Forró Train) from Recife to Carurau, which stops at towns and villages all along the 130 kilometer trip. At each stop, people board and join the on-going party, with singing and dancing throughout the train. People close to the railway line gather to wave to the passengers of the train as it passes by. Ten Forró Trains, or approximately six thousand people, arrive in the town by rail alone.
The bacamarteiros are another attraction of the festivities. Dressed in uniform, groups of men, followed by fife bands, carry blunderbusses and parade throughout the town, shooting powerful loud blasts of dry powder in honor of June saints. The tradition of bacamarteiros passes from father to son, and it is taken so seriously that when the father dies and there are no sons in the family, the daughter or wife takes his place in the battalion.
Wherever you are during the latter part of June, you are sure to see and hear costume-wearing, dancing, drinking, food, music, fireworks, and of course, the bonfires.
The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article. While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.
Stephen Guild is Executive Editor of Recife Guide.
Photos by: Hans Braegelmann, Celso Cesar and others.