Of Paganism and Sant Joan

 Photo Credit: Unsplash

By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu

Dateline: El Raval, Barcelona

Last week was the feast of Sant (Saint) Joan in Barcelona. The actual day, the 23rd of June is the longest day and shortest night of the year. It officially signals the end of winter and the beginning of summer.

This feast, usually celebrated with much fanfare, is a big deal in Catalan areas in Spain. Such was the significance that the following Monday was declared a public holiday, giving Catalans a long weekend to commemorate the event.

What is most fascinating is that Sant Joan has its roots in paganism. The symbols of the feast: water, fire and, herbs make it pretty clear that this was a pre-Christian era banquet. But it has been adapted into the church. As in Africa where the sun is a symbol of life, Sant Joan heralds a season of fertility and abundance.

Traditionally, many people head to the beach on the night of the 23rd to have a bath into the wee hours of the morning because the water signifies healing.

It does sound like Aladura church members in Lagos (former Nigerian capital city) having a bath at midnight in Bar Beach. Ehe! Lagosians know what I’m talking about. Aladura church lays emphasis on prayer and healing in line with African traditions.

As children growing up in Christian households, we used to question this practice of bathing in the sea or river at night by some churches such as Aladura. The thought of being on a beach on the Atlantic Ocean at night was scary enough let alone the spiritual angle. It was viewed as ungodly. But that’s partly because the Christianity that we were taught heavily rebuked ancient practices for the purposes of legitimization and control.

It is therefore, interesting to hear of Sant Joan and the symbols, although some may argue that today, it’s simply a big modern party.

The fire symbol of the feast is given teeth through tons of fireworks exploding throughout the city and the setting up of bonfires. People often drag a comfortable chair to their balconies to watch and make merry. On my way home that night, the streets were bursting with people launching fireworks into the air. It reminded me of Christmas night and new year’s eve back in Nigeria. It used to be a festival of fireworks, particularly bangers. Does anybody from Nigeria remember that?

As for the herb symbol, it is seen as medicine or cure. It is said that people with healing gifts experience a boost of powers on this night. Yes, this really sounds ancient and pagan.

During a conversation with a Spanish friend on this topic, she mentioned that as a Roman Catholic, she recognizes that some church practices were adapted from the pagan culture by the Roman Empire. Many believers aren’t aware of this.

Hmmmmm. It’s surreal. Where are the Christian missionaries that told  Africans that they’re all heathens on the high way to hell? My view is that there’s a lot we can learn from the past. It is the foundation. If you do not know who you are, where you’re coming from, it’s impossible to build a solid future. Blind loyalty to church doctrine is the reason why we sometimes act without logic and sense.

As for my folks in Nigerian villages, please stop destroying vestiges of the country’s  heritage in the name of Christianity. I agree some aspects of tradition need to be ditched. But many others deserve to be acknowledged, preserved and revived.

What are the pagan festivals from your part of the world? Which ones have been mixed with Christianity or Islam? Enjoy and join the conversation in the comment box.

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14 comments

  1. Very interesting insight.
    I guess that’s why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t follow many Christian pagan rituals.

  2. Wow!!!! Now thats a heavy challenge for many, but I sure hope the courageous among us can contribute to your article. I loved this read! Wish it could be much longer but you have sent me on my own person journey of investigation. For me, In my hometown in the Ibo side of Delta State, water and rivers have so much symbolic and spiritual values. In fact, thr Godesses of our towns live in these sacred streams and water bodies. Actually, so much to share I might have to come back and paste part of my Masters thesis research here 🙂 Thanks for this expose, wish I could experience this amazing journey in Spain with you!

    1. Amara, when I was living in the UK, I attended Jehova’s Witnesses. That was when I realised their Bible is a bit different, with more books. It was also when I started having doubts about this going to hell story we were told at Sunday school. My sister, tory too long, Nigerians will say!

    2. Thanks Mmadili for your comment. I would definitely love to read and publish that Masters thesis. If you can summarise it in 700 to 1000 words, it can be done. Knowledge is power. Naija and African people shine your eyes. We’ve lost so much of our background. History is full of lies and depends entirely on who writes it. You need to dig deep to understand it’s all politics. Kai

  3. Being brought up in the mainstream protestant tradition in Scotland, UK I wasn’t influenced by Catholic worship of Mary or had religious figures in church. The bible is the focus and Jesus the centre. Special days like Easter, Christmas, Pentecost all celebrate Jesus and the Holy Spirit in some way or other even though xmas was born out of paganism in Germany I believe, as was the christmas tree. Ofcourse, purist as it is, it hasn’t prevented the many church splits that protestantism has experienced over the centuries and still experiences particularly over homosexuality and it’s legitimacy in light of biblical references to it being an abomination to God.
    Missionary christianity over the centuries has many attachments from the various regional religions and spiritual practices it was trying to supplant. A startling example of this is the practice among otherwise christians of having ancestors corpses in the home as objects to be venerated. I think this happens in parts of Mexico but maybe I can be corrected about the country in South America. I also think they have a special time of celebration of these. Comments welcome.
    Personally, I’m not too fussed about remembering past rituals and prefer to focus on the sociatal and personal need to live a life of kindness and love as the bible lays out. Loving my enemy has as yet proved illusive and about which I find a mountain to climb, but mercifully they only existed in a work context and only several. I am thankfully no longer in that job, however if I were to bump into them somewhere still leaves me hoping and wondering if I could muster up a little grace to satisfy my feelings of failure. 🙄

  4. I meant to add my limited knowledge of Jehovah Witness beliefs. Their bible has small subtle changes like in John 1:1…”In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God”. Jehovahs say…”the word was A God”. A God. Further, they say the Holy Spirit is a power, a force. Not a person. They say the word “trinity”is not in the bible, which is true, it isnt. This means they deny that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.
    This to me and any mainstream christian means JW is a cult not a christian denomination.
    While I’m here I would like to add that I believe in the reality of hell. To me it makes complete sense in the Bible story and in no way denies that God is love and a just God. He offers us the freedom to choose His life or no life after death. What’s so unjuse about that. If heaven exists spiritually ergo so does hell. In this life we have positive/negative; good/bad, light/dark….as Paul says (think it was him) this life shows us God’s handiwork and Glory…paraphrased.

    1. Ian, I get your view about not looking back on the past in order to focus squarely on today. That’s great. At the same time, for Africans, the history is much more complicated. So many things were used to deny people of their right to life, dignity, etc. So, circumstances are totally different. People were literally made to deny their existence. It’s important to know who you are. Identity is crucial before anything. It’s a base from which one builds anything.

  5. Have you tasted the “coca de Sant Joan”. Is the traditional cake that is used to it during this feast.

    1. Mariam, no I have not tasted it although I’m aware of it. How are you doing these days? Hope great!

  6. Yes I take your point Constance about made to deny ones existence. Christianity like Islam has been very adept at denying people of their true identity and culture. Here in the UK an early example was the divine right of Kings which had to have as it’s food and drink servitude of the masses; later class distinction that that not only meant grinding poverty, inhuman working conditions (even in the 20 century minors were put out to work) and the rich often choosing the clergy for their sons as an upper class career. I’m only scraping the surface here.
    Is it any wonder church membership here has dwindled now their is more freedom to choose.
    So the loss of identity takes many forms between nations but it’s all done to suit the elite in each under the guise of religion. Women in particular have suffered the most.

  7. In my humble opinion, it makes sense that nowadays traditions are based in a cultural and religious diversity experienced by a country or culture during the past of the centuries. The opposite doesn’t sound reasonable to me.
    Even in such a religious festivity as Christmas is in Spain – the birth of Jesus is celebrated, attending to a midnight mass after the mandatory dinner- has its owns pagan locals celebrations.
    In Catalonia children feed “tió”, a trunk with painted eyes and mouth wearing the typical Catalan hat called “barretina”- to hit him in 24th evening in order “tió” defecates the presents… In Basque Country there is another tradition, not so scatological: a collier called Olentzero bring the presents to the children.
    Is quite likely that other similar traditions exist in my country. I have to admit my ignorance about this subject.
    The reality is more subtle and complex than the official version or fashionable vision. Simplicity trends to emphasizes the differences, creating enemies. A deeper approach shows than cultures and humans are more related as it can seems at first sight.

  8. Africa’s colonization robbed it of several things, including culture and heritage. I agree! A people who don’t know who they are are inherently “lost” ie no identity! The ramifications are far reaching – into politics, economics, religion and the society! This is what distinguishes Africans from Asians who also faced the same colonization but were able to maintain their identities and leverage it to serve their interests. Most Africans are not proud of their heritage and have been brainwashed to undermine their own tradition. This is the root of our challenges.

  9. Palaiatu and Supo, thanks for taking the time to comment. You enrich us with your own observations. Same to Sadva.

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