When in Caruaru, Brazil: celebrating Festa de São João

As a fan of summer, I think I’ve finally found a way that even I could be happy ringing in winter: Festa de São João. I’ve just taken part in the festivities in Caruaru, Brazil.

Like many festivals in Brazil, it combines a religious side and a pagan side. There’s the winter solstice side that celebrates the harvest (especially corn) throughout the month of June. And on top of that, three days are taken to honor saints: Anthony on the 13th, Peter and Paul on the 29th, and–most importantly for this region–John (São João) on the 24th.

How do you celebrate Festa de São João? With music and dancing, of course (it’s Brazil, after all)–especially the lively regional favorite of forró, which sets the mood of the festivities. You’re also likely to come across street fairs complete with food stalls, the marching of guarde civil bacamanteiros, and costumes that honor rural life (like women in pigtails and painted freckles).

And then there’s my favorite: the bonfires–not just found in the central square, but liberally throughout the streets of residential areas. It’s not uncommon to see the homeowner standing in the doorway mere feet away, gazing down at theirs. The bonfires start from waist-high stacks of logs, and end in ashes, smoldering as s’mores-worthy embers hours later. The reason for the bonfires? They’re a reminder of the birth of St. John the Baptist. To recap the Christian story: Isabelle burned a fire to tell her sister, Mary, when John was born–a kind of precursor to today’s phone call or text message.

Like February’s Carnaval, Festa de São João is celebrated across the country, but no place more than in Caruaru, and neighboring towns Gravatá and Arco Verde (about 1 hour west of Recife in northeastern Brazil). People flock there to be at the heart of the celebration–it’s not uncommon for more than 150,000 people to join the festivities every night in Caruaru.