Honoring Saint John the Baptist
To understand the reverence Puerto Ricans have for Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista in Spanish), you need look no further than the name of the island's capital: the city of San Juan. In fact, San Juan Bautista was the name Christopher Columbus gave to the island of Puerto Rico when he arrived in 1493 (the city of San Juan was actually christened "Porto Rico," or Rich Port). Of course, the names were swapped and the capital has even since borne the name of Puerto Rico's beloved patron saint.
Today, Saint John the Baptist remains a central figure in the island's lore and tradition. One of the city's oldest and most hallowed churches, the Catedral de San Juan, bears his name. And the Fiesta de San Juan Bautista, also known simply as the Fiestas de San Juan is one of the island's most important annual events.
About the Festival
The Festival de San Juan Bautista takes place every year on June 24 (Midsummers Day, or the summer solstice) and is marked by a few interesting traditions and customs. It's the most important of the hundreds of fiestas patronales, or patron saint festivals, that cities and towns throughout Puerto Rico hold each year to honor their chosen patron saint.
I've always marveled at Puerto Rico's ability to maintain a ridiculously full calendar of events, with someone somewhere celebrating something almost every day (and definitely every weekend). From foods to people to saints to historical events, this island loves to throw a party in honor of something that makes up part of the fabric of modern-day Puerto Rico. And patron saint festivals play an important role here. Every town in Puerto Rico has one, with many naturally sharing the same patron saint.
This calendar shows you the full listing of who celebrates whom and when. As you'll see, Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of a few towns, but nobody celebrates with the pomp and scale that the capital brings.
Festivities at the Festival
While the festival is, of course, rooted in the Catholic traditions of the island, there are a few folkloric highlights that set it apart. It's most well-known event actually takes place the night before on beaches around the island. As midnight approaches on the 23rd, you'll find the locals gathering on the beach. At the stroke of midnight, custom dictates that you fall backward into the water 12 times for luck. This is somehow a harbinger of good luck for the rest of the year, and it also serves as the unofficial kickoff for the festival.
As with most patron saint festivals, the Festival de San Juan Bautista begins at the church and moves onto the streets. Old San Juan becomes an open-air street party with crowds making their way through the old city, parades, live bomba y plena music, dances and folks in colorful traditional clothing on full display. Vejigantes are always part of the pageantry, often on stilts to add a little dramatic effect to the visual. And a coronation of a King and Queen of the event takes place each year.
Of course, no parade, party or celebration in Puerto Rico is complete without food, and you'll find food kiosks and delicious local goodies available. It's a carnival-like atmosphere, with smaller festivals around the island taking place in the days leading up to and following the 24th. But there's no doubt that the main party takes place in San Juan. It's a fantastic, colorful, boisterous and unique way to celebrate the local culture.