Festa de São João

Porto, Portugal

In many nations, culture and religion are closely linked.  Faith is so heavily intertwined with the history of some regions that it has become inseparable from their customs and celebrations.  This is especially common throughout Europe, where Catholicism has become a defining characteristic of many populations.

While some festivals originated from religious practices, many celebrations that were not religious in nature were adapted for the purposes of the Catholic church.  Popular customs were often linked to feast days celebrating the lives of saints and martyrs; this allowed for regional customs to continue unchanged while encouraging recognition of church holidays.  Spiritual leaders hoped that what were previously just annual parties would become religious events with a higher purpose and refined nature.  Although this was the case with many festivals, some remained largely unaltered despite being given a Catholic name.

The Portuguese city of Porto is home to a six-hundred year old street festival.  Festa de São João do Porto was named for Saint John in the 1800s, making it an official, citywide holiday.  Nevertheless, the traditions that predated the festival’s receipt of a new name continued to be practiced with little acknowledgement of their Catholic reinvention.  In fact, many of the city’s favorite practices related to the festival are of pagan rather than Christian origins.

The most notable custom of the day named for Saint John involves hitting others with hammers (made of soft materials to prevent injury) or soft plant stems such as leeks.  Ironically, striking another in this manner is a sign of affection or desire in Porto.  The tradition, which has no link to the holiday’s Catholic namesake, is believed to have descended from pagan customs.


Religious practices that are common to many celebrations of church holidays in Europe are still found in Porto during the festival.  Services are held and followed by traditional processions and parades, and religious icons are often erected outside of homes.  However, the dominant practices and largest attractions of Festa de São João remain secular.  The festival appears to be more of an annual party that happens to fall on Saint John’s feast day than an orchestrated day of devotion or prayer.

Indeed, little of the day seems to be truly planned.  Much of the celebration, although following the precedent of years past, is spontaneous and unscheduled.  Festivities begin in the afternoon of June 23, falling near the summer solstice as another result of early pagan influence.  Revelers take to the streets wielding plastic hammers; vendors set up stalls selling food and wine; a variety of performers entertain the crowds from makeshift stages across the city.  As evening falls, the crowds shift toward the district of Porto known for having the best bars and restaurants, enjoying more food and plentiful wine.  In keeping with the impromptu nature of the festival, firework displays occasionally light up the sky until the grand show takes place at midnight.


While some return home after the fireworks, the majority of Porto continues its party into the following morning.  Many make their way to the nearby beach, building bonfires and swimming in the sea until the sun rises.  Festa de São João has become one of Portugal’s most vibrant celebrations, but its mixed roots make it unique.  It is a celebration of nothing in particular, its nature to be determined by each participant.

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    Festa de São João | Cultures and Customs

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    Festa de São João | Cultures and Customs

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    Festa de São João | Cultures and Customs

  4. Yeah, I keep telling people that I hit them with hammers out of affection, but they continue to complain…. Sigh…. Anyways, this sounds like an amazing festival with a really interesting background! It is funny how many religious practices actually have pagan roots, but this festival just seems to be an old tradition with a new name slapped on it. A very cool entry!

  5. It’s incredible how many festivals from all over the world are actually based on festivals from ancient religions that no longer exist. Even things like the timing of Christmas stem from those pagan cultures showing that they still have a huge impact on society today.

  6. I think that this festival sounds beautiful. I also think that getting to hit my friends on the head with plastic hammers would be a very good use of time.

  7. Adam Rastatter

    I love these blog because it is a follow up of what is happening to what I blogged about last week. I admittedly haven’t followed the situation since I blogged last week but I knew that they were going to throw some sort of sanctions at Russia. This appears to be just the first step thought because Obama’s administration has talked about economic sanctions. This action seems to just take away some of Russia’s negotiating power. So I fully expect the now G7 to expand on this move and try to punish Russia in other ways as well.

  8. Also I could have sworn I was replying to your civic issues blog post. Oops.

  9. I agree with what you said up until the point about Russia eventually needing to work with other nations. And while I do agree that that is true, it would be hard not to, I do not think that it will play out in a way that is going to benefit the rest of the G7. I feel that Russia will view this removal as more than a small slight and further down the road it will come back to both sides of the argument with a vengeance. However, I believe that the US and the rest of the world powers had to do something. Russia should not have been allowed to just annex Crimea without some sort of black-lash and I view this as the most peaceful and smallest reaction the rest of the world could have taken. To be honest, it would not surprise me if Russia didn’t just go communist again and then make friends with China.

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