There are moments of strange unreality, when something someone says aligns with my memories and I go “I’m not crazy, after all.”
(Mind you, this is for a limited definition of “not crazy” considering I woke up with the following sentences running through my head “It’s like wearing pants. No one likes it, but it’s necessary.” And no, I have absolutely no idea where that came from, either.)
In this case I was reading on São João, aka St. John, who is the patron saint of the city I come from and whose celebration is a very big thing indeed, including dancing in the city streets all night and lighting bonfires as well as launching lighted balloons (not sure why that one. But dad liked that part. A lot. The weeks before would be spent designing the frame work, picking the onion paper to go over it, etc. Had the man been born in the US he’d have been a rocketeer.)
The festival is ridiculously badly advertised, though it should be a touristic high point. At least now most of Europe knows about it, but in the seventies and eighties, we were often confronted with tourists who had come to town for a week and had no clue what this was and why this was happening. In the seventies sometimes they thought it was some kind of a revolution, before realizing no one goes to a revolution with giant plastic squeaky hammers and bunches of herbs which is what people carry while forming lines and dancing/running through the city singing.
At some point the dime would drop and you’d find tourists looking incredibly bewildered but very happy, along the lines of “Wait till I tell my friends this” joining one of the lines and attempting to sing the (either religious or incredibly off color or sometimes both) songs.
I don’t exactly miss it, but the smells in the air in June remind me of it, as does the “body temperature” air. And I’d meant to be setup enough to host a barbecue for my friends this year, which didn’t happen. So I was looking it up on line.
And came across a reference to how in the Middle Ages St. John’s feast was considered incredibly important and also “Christmas in June” which means it ported over a lot of the same traditions.
Now, look, São João has any number of really strange traditions — yes, stranger than hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers that squeak, or rubbing herbs under other people’s noses with or without their permission — there’s jumping the bonfire together (or alone for particularly daring teen males), there’s staying up till the sun comes up and then having cafe au lait and buttered toast, because it’s tradition. There’s giving each other pots of basil (manjerico) which is not used for cooking, in Portugal as a sign of good wishes for the new year. (I love cooking with basil, but the smell always takes me back.) There’s poetry contests over basil (my brother usually wins a couple run by local newspapers, as well as putting verses in the vases of basil he gives everyone, from my mom to old work mates, to his wife.
But the one I remember from childhood, and which was bigger in my parents’ time, I never heard mentioned anywhere outside my own head, at least not by anyone who didn’t grow up with me or someone who hadn’t experienced it.
You made a nativity for São João. It was done with different figures, because the indoor nativity was often porcelain and expensive, while the outdoor one was often made of the cheapest clay and crudely painted (but charming. I wish they’d sell those in the tourist areas, instead of the “penis as everything” trend they seem to think pleases the tourists.)
It also had more figures. Yes, elaborate nativity sets here have camels, etc. But “Cascata” sets in Portugal had EVERYTHING from houses to vendors (sometimes in Medieval Portuguese clothing) to… everything.
A Cascata was like your very own construction project where you could make an entire miniature landscape. It was like a nativity crossed with miniature railroads (which some cascatas included.)
The very religious would have a sort of “life of Jesus” theme interlaced in their constructions.
The rest of us went a little goofy on things like, let’s make a very large landscape.
I would build the mountains a month in advance, and cover them with moss which I watered till it took (because it looks like grass in miniature) and I no longer remember if I built an artesian fountain or just planned it. I know boys in the village often had real running rivers with boats on them, etc.
So for us it was a great mid-summer geek fest. And I didn’t know where the tradition came from and now I know it’s the whole “Christmas in June” thing.
Oh, and see that dish with money next to the saint statue? The thing was to brandish an image of the saint and say “Penny for the saint” when people admired your cascata.
I don’t know. I’m now sad my kids didn’t get the geek fest of building entire landscapes for a mid summer festival, and I might find an excuse to teach the grand kids to do this. Because our sort of people just loves that, and getting really elaborate on it consumed the first half of summer holidays and kept kids out of trouble. Also you learned interesting things, like how to build a well/fountain with a little plastic bucket and some tubing.
Oh, and next year, maybe I’ll be moved-in settled enough to have a barbecue.