‘Noche de San Juan’… in San Juan
“Oye, chico, ¡coge la neverita por el otro lado!”
“¿Estás segura de que trajiste el lighter fluid? “
“Mira, allá está saliendo alguien y nos podemos parquear.”
“¿Alguien sabe si va a llover?”
Hey, bro, pick up the cooler on the other side! Are you sure that you brought lighter fluid? Look, a parking spot. Does anyone know whether it will rain? Welcome to St. John’s Eve, or Noche de San Juan as we call it in Puerto Rico, the night before the celebration of the birth of the island’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist, when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, at the stroke of midnight, jump or flip backwards into the ocean three, seven, or even 12 times, according to individual preference and tradition.
Island folklore has it that our waters will be blessed for the duration of the evening. Whether honoring San Juan Bautista or allowing the recreation of ancient rites of purification, immersion in the ocean on this night is guaranteed to bring good luck, ward off evil, and cleanse the body of sin.
Bonfires are also a big part of the evening beach scene, inherited, according to some, from the ancient pagan celebration of summer solstice on June 21 and the purifying power of fire. Jumping over a bonfire three times while wearing your bathing suit will clean your soul, a variation of the theme practiced in Europe and other regions of the world. In fact, St. John’s Eve, in one way or another is celebrated in many countries and by many cultures. Resourceful stateside Puerto Ricans have been known to substitute beaches for pools.
If it seems that in Puerto Rico we are overly preoccupied with our souls and their purification, understand that the Caribbean, as the gateway to the New World, became an enormous melting pot of Native, African and European cultures. Almost without exception, each island syncretized all the religions, mythologies and legends found across the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Just as the explanations of the origins of the Noche de San Juan are numerous; so are the contradictions. And it is here in Puerto Rico, an island where you normally don’t go swimming in the ocean at night, where we find the epitome of syncretism.
People start arriving at the beaches during the late afternoon in order to secure a good spot and plenty of space for their bare necessities: cooler, boom box, grill or cast iron pots, and beach chairs. As soon as one settles down, barbecuing begins, literally a tailgate party right on the beach. The traditionalists might stick to island delicacies such as asopao (stew, usually seafood or chicken) cooked in a caldero (cast iron pot) and the ever popular fried temptations, especially bacalaitos (codfish patties), alcapurrias (stuffed yucca o plantain dough patties) and pastelillos (turnovers, usually cheese or meat).
All styles of music, from salsa, bachata and reggaeton to rock en español and in English, hip hop, Techno and disco, accompany the cacophony of surf, conversations and laughter. Pagan, as well as religious, potions are generously served and consumed. Young, athletic bathers try their luck at conquering the towering bonfires, while the less adventurous test the water for temperature, roughness, or any uninvited guests that may lurk under its dark surface.
Everybody at some point or other of the evening takes a stroll along the shore, as if it were Sunday afternoon, greeting friends and admiring the bathing suits. Bonfires illuminate the sand, the stars and even sometimes the moon, competing with fireworks that explode intermittently throughout the night. If you arrive late at the scene, an ocean undistinguishable from the night horizon will greet you, and as your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, figures in bathing suits will appear, shimmering from the flames reflecting off the salty mist while dancing, eating, talking, drinking, singing and simply waiting for the magical moment to enter the water, in an atmosphere sweetly scented by the odors wafting from the burning embers and seaweed in the grills.
And at midnight, ready or not, we do the flip, or the backwards jump, into the dark surf, holding hands with friends and strangers alike, forgetting baptisms and solstices and rites as the warm, salty ocean envelops us in wet blackness.
Then you realize that it is not such a bad idea to be at the beach at night, after all.
– Dr. Juan Luis Ferrer C ’78, V ‘82