Roses for San Juan – Valencia, Spain

Roses for San Juan

Valencia, Spain

With the summer solstice gracing the Valencia sands in mid-June, so also approaches the timelessness of our primal nature: hot summer nights, fiery dancing, feverish drumming, blazing bonfires, and passionate music. It is the time of year when spirit dances with flesh, when sangria pours into tall cylindrical glasses, and when tribal traditions of celebration and ritual begin. Spain is no exception: in fact, its passion for beauty, its lust for life, and its aching for love are, to each of our five senses, illuminated during the summer festivals, when the parties pour onto the beaches and the sun burns its brightest.

The loveliest holiday – El Dia de San Juan, or, Feast of St. John – falls in step with the summer solstice each June, just as the roses have bloomed brilliant colors and the purple blossoms on the trees have seduced the people with ideas of rebirth and radiance. It is San Juan, though once a Catholic saint traced to roots in ancient Pagan religions and is now merely a legend, who becomes idolized in a series of celebrations unparalleled by the ancients during these lovely flowerings. His holiday begins with an enormous parade, complete with volunteers sweating profusely and dragging their heavy costumes down the street and pegging children in the face with candy they don’t really want to throw. A traditional religious celebration by nature in a culture that isn’t very religious in practice wakes up the morning of his dedication with a bang of trumpets, a presentation of ornate monuments, an unveiling of streets dressed in ribbons and flowers of all colors, bonfires illuminating the early morning skies, and a rush of excitement felt only by the youngest on their first holidays.

Falling Roses Like Raindrops
Falling Roses Like Raindrops
To be honest, however, the morning as I stood, backpack in tow, besides the crowds of thousands, I couldn’t imagine the assembly of brilliantly tanned, warm-faced, decorated parade goers looking any more depressed or suffocated as they scuffled by our crammed street corner. Though only having taken classes in Spain for two months, I knew only too well the reputation of the fiery Spaniards: there is a very good reason siesta and fiesta claim similar linguistic roots, for their purposes are irrevocably intertwined. To celebrate is to live.

However, despite this seemingly lovely cultural fact that I embraced rather wholly, I also remember what a parade is on a scorching mid-summer morning. The parade participants didn’t look much better than the ancient faces they represented, with their faces, from Daniel and the entire Lion’s Den to Moses himself, looking as droopy as the sweltering June day, and of course, just as limp. The procession lasted two hours – two hours of trumpets getting progressively more flat, two hours of sweat getting additionally thicker, and two hours of more and more babies whining in the laps of their grandmothers. Two hours of me getting more and more bored. I found my mind drifting, wondering why everyone was hanging around when we could all end the collective misery and regroup on the shores of the seductive Mediterranean Sea for just as festive festivities.

Apparently, San Juan wasn’t too happy with his birthday celebration either, for just as the last spectator dozed off to sleep, blue raindrops started falling from the sky like soft tears at the end of a silent movie. Further inspection corrected these tears as blue rose petals, being flung from high lofts above our heads. Civilian hands peeking out from high windows lining the streets thrust petals into the crowds, cheering as they unwound like silk scarves and spun around each other like ice skaters in love. Dropping to the floor, they piled up to form rainbows of roses and nestled in the cracks of the cobblestones like early blossoms. Roses as turquoise gemstones, blazing orange sunsets, fiery flamenco dancers’ skirts, summer lilac pansies and pink cheeks tangoed like fiery artists interpreting flecks broken from the full color spectrum. I jumped from my metal chair and spun around, the sundress I was wearing swirling around my ankles and cooling me, my camera snapping around the raining petals.

San Juan’s Feast is also known as The Rose Parade, and as I lost myself in a showering sea of colors and flowers, I realized I was breathing color, I was breathing smell, I was breathing life – I was intoxicating my senses as if drenching them in a glass of tangy sangria and not in drops of delicate roses. It was then, beneath the spinning petals and the scattered rainbows painting the sky, the earth, and the cobblestone streets, that I noticed, above all else, above every experience, that I was breathing the freshest, purest air life provides. Amidst the humidity, the hot summer sun, and the stifling sweat, I was breathing space, I was breathing sky, I was breathing time, understanding, familiarity, awareness. It was the most incredible and essential breath my lungs have ever drawn in, and I’ve never had another one quite like it. The next day I sent an empty letter to my parents with just the words “the colors of Spain” dotting the outside envelope – in it, I scattered a handful of roses, of every shape and color imaginable. It was all the news worth sending.

That evening, as the sun settled into its nightly cradle and the moon caressed our sunburned shoulders in breathy kisses, the shores of the Valencian beaches filled with light feet, tossed socks in the sand, laughter, and a sense of childlike lightness and excitement. The Day of San Juan is not only a day of love, of roses, and of beauty; it is truly an evening of cleansing. For as we pulled into the chaotic mess of cars with expectations exceeding experience, I could no longer see the white sand beaches running along the blue shores of the Mediterranean, but instead an insatiable swarm of wet, naked bodies, crowded by the hundreds of thousands in sandy dozens and dancing furiously around flaming fires to the reaches of both horizons.

The Spaniards are rich in culture, in drink, and in life, yes, but they are millions of times richer in their seductive spirit and legendary myth. This day, this exceedingly long, sweaty day, is the mythical New Year of the senses, when the evil spirits are burned and washed away, and the young are granted eternal beauty and harmony. Each and every person had tossed their shoes to the sands, along with their inhibitions and their daylight weariness, and had begun to dance and jump over the bonfires, which blazed to the skies in blistering swirls of brilliant colors. Their bare silhouettes blended into the fires, sending their sins to the smoke high above and cleansing their spirits with the gift of eternal beauty. Drummers wearing beaded necklaces, linen pants, nomadic sandals and timeless smiles crowded around the lights, furiously banging beautiful African rhythms to tapping feet gracing the cooled sands. The people danced in such pure symphonic harmony that the sway of the tide followed their rhythms, blending everything in a sea of massive human peace and awareness.

After the clocks above the old Spanish churches chimed midnight, the tradition evolved: from burning to cleansing, we raced to the sea and fled to the water, splashing madly and swimming to the sounds of the united genocide of sin. The Spaniards believe that washing yourself in the sea seven times on this special day will cleanse the soul of its acquired tainted thoughts, sinful indulgences, and wicked feelings over the past year, and this time, it appeared as if San Juan himself was smiling down upon the Mediterranean shores. There was a feeling of genuine, human emotion, splashing alongside jumping bodies and both awkward and native Spanish as the locals taught the foreigners the meaning of this harvest of summer.

The newspapers tallied the numbers at over one hundred thousand, declaring that day the largest peace party the city of Valencia had ever seen. I imagine the thousands of souls looking for inspiration that night, as we joined hands and eradicated our cultural differences from a hundred-thousand to one. Faces from every race, color, country, and culture blended into simply joyful shadows profiling the human form against blazing orange fires, turning every difference into a common similarity. There are rare moments in life when we truly feel connected to the earth, and rarer still to each other; yet, on the day of the Feast of St. John, I couldn’t help but feel a little closer to discovering what independence is in a world where we eternally depend on one another. We finally fell asleep to the calm morning sun gracing the horizons, and I awoke, hours later, from the smells of burning wood and sin to the flowery remnants of rose petals scattered throughout the still streets. Everything was silent, photographed into eternity, and I knew, at that moment, that I had gotten the education I’d come so far for.

And now, as I sit here writing to remember, still feeling the pulse of my dancing and the chill of my sweat dripping down my shoulders, I wonder what happened to that beautiful smiling girl, dancing free of life and free of troubles, who once believed she held the world in her hands. I remember my snapshots, my tranquility, and my lightness – things that now, as reality has changed, seem just a dream; a primal dream, dreamt up during restless American nights. So free, so wild, so untainted, and yet so innocent.

It is an inspiration, independence. Find the freedom and dance, for just as music, a song doesn’t last forever, and neither does a moment.