Bonfires of St. John
We shall not go back in time to the cult of fire and its further Christianisation under John the Baptist. We shall remain in closer times where the summer solstice was celebrated around purifying fires by the Spanish peoples, especially those of the Mediterranean coast.
The fire rituals in Alicante have endured throughout times. It was an agricultural festivity in which peasants celebrated both the longest day of the year with their recollection of harvests, and also the shortest night to eliminate their misfortunes. This custom was later introduced in the city of Alicante, as Alicante and its vegetable gardens were but one thing. Thus the first primitive bonfires are recorded in the year 1822 in which the mayor’s edict ordered “Bonfires not to be lit in the streets, nor rockets or fireworks be lit either under a fine of 20 to 200 reales. “
Bonfires were prohibited year after year by the authorities, but the people continued lighting them following tradition. In 1881, due to a Town Hall’s lapse, the ban of not lighting bonfires was not published, so it can be read in one of the diaries that “Just after the beginning of St. John’s local open-air dance, the peaceful locals started bonfires and fireworks in a great number.” Taking advantage of the absence of the prohibition, neighbours grouped in the streets creating the “festes de carrer” (or street celebrations) with popular games, music of “dulzaina y tabalet” (traditional wind instrument and drums), and even most important, with the creation of the current “ninots”, grotesque figures which represented some famous person whom the neighbourhood criticised.
The city district bonfires continued for real in our streets despite the constant prohibitions, and they must have been outrageous as these were recorded by the notorious families of the city, like this one of Mr. Pobil’s addressed to the mayor by which he claimed “I beg you to take appropriate measures so that the scandalous actions of former years in the evenings of St. John and St. Peter will not be repeated because they create a bad image of the culture of this population.”
But it was not until 1928 when such a persecuted tradition was definitely established. An association called Alicante Attraction was created dedicated to promote the tourism of the city, which at the time preferred the Cantabric beaches best. And here does the figure of Mr. José María Pí appear, who just after explaining the origin of the Valencian Fallas wrote this: “The Bonfires of Alicante have been well-known for their tradition since immemorial times. We, Alicantinians, should give them the same importance as the Valencian Fallas have ever been given.” This idea of attracting tourism, as it had been done in Valencia, was accepted by the governing class, so Alicante Attraction was authorised to organise “the first Bonfires of St. John”, the first ones to be allowed by the Town Hall.
Later on it was known that Mr. José María Pí played his cards very well before the authorities to attract tourism by making the festivity official, although he had always devised the Bonfires for the people of Alicante’s enjoyment.
The success of the first year was complete, and according to the El Día (1928) newspaper, “The Bonfires have been an remarkable event in the history of Alicante. More than 100,000 people watched the cremá.” (the burning of the bonfires)
Thus, both things had been accomplished at the same time: the formalising of the festivity and the tourists’ attraction, as this latter one was so massive that the same Mr. Manuel Arqués Such declared on the press that “The people, these good people, were frightened of what they had done.
The had the childish feeling of having committed a sin.” Logically, the criticisms from Valencia soon emerged and in 1929 one Falla referred to the Bonfires with the motto “monkeys of repetition.” But that fact, rather than intimidating the people from Alicante, it stimulated them even more, and after a few years’ time thirty bonfires had already been created.
The concept of Barraca (similar to a club, with members) had also originated-a fenced place erected in the middle of the street with an allegoric entrance, in which in the popular evening dances take place and where the Alicantinian gastronomy can be enjoyed.
Likewise, from 1932 onwards the Bonfires created the highest representation of the feast, the Bellesa del Foc (Queen of Fire) a young woman who is elected annually from all the representatives of each Comisión de Foguera (district Bonfire committee).
Within years, the number of Comisiones has increased up to ninety, all distributed throughout the city increasing their Barracas as well as, being over 100,000 the current participants in our festivity.
Having been declared firstly festivities of national tourist interest, and later of international one, the Bonfires of St. John are nowadays the official festivities of the city. In 2014 The Generalitat Valenciana declared the Bonfires of St. John as a Welfare of Immaterial Cultural Interest (BIC), which conveys a protection to the bonfire monument s and to all the elements included in the festa (festivity)