Festa de Sao Joao – Old Traditions in Porto, Portugal

saojoaofireworksThere’s an old saying in Portugal that says; “Porto works while Lisbon plays”.  However during the Festa de Sao Joao – St John’s Festival, which is held on June 23-24th the city celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

On that day, the city of Porto comes alive and puts on one of Europe’s best summer festivals.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal.  It’s one of Europe’s’ oldest cities and in 1996 it was registered as an official UNESCO World Heritage site.


The name Porto is said to have originated by the Roman’s Latin world  Portus Cale –  meaning the name of a settlement along the river Douro “Port of Cale”. Some historians believe that it’s where the county’s name “Portugal” came from.

As many of you know, the infamous “Port Wine” derived it’s name from the area where it is produced.

Many traditional pagan rites connected with fire, water, and love are observed celebrating the “Summer Solstice”.

The festivities begin on the 23rd, the night of St. Johns Eve. In the afternoon the Avenida dos Aliados is filled with a parade of “Marchas” folk music, singing and dancing until the hour of midnight where there is a spectacular fireworks display on the “Ribeira” the coast along the Douro river. Visit Porto Tourism Official site for information on the planned events.

When the firework display finishes, singing, dancing, and the traditional marches continue as the people dance their way from Ribeira up to Foz on the Atlantic coast where they wait for the sun to rise.

SaoJoao_d3 Here they follow an ancient folklore tradition by bathing in the ocean before sunrise to ward off evil since it is believed that the water on St. John’s Eve has spirit healing quality.


sao joao

Along the streets you’ll find cafes and booths offering the traditional foods such as the most favorite food, sardinas assadas as well as many souvenirs.


In old folklore it was custom to hit each other on the head with “garlic flowers” but in Porto these days they use plastic hammers.  Potted basil plants (manjericos) with a short poem of four versus, are exchanged as a ritual.


On the 24th the  Regatta of Rabelos Boats parade takes place along the mouth of the Douro river. These wooden boats have been used for centuries to transport the world renowned Port Wine.

I learned many things that I didn’t know about the “Festa de Sao Joao” which my mother had always reminded of every June. It amazes me how the Christian celebrations are closely tied into the old pagan rituals.

I know that’s how they were able to convert many people to Christianity by allowing them to observe the rituals of Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice for Christmas, Spring Equinox for Easter, and so forth…

I’m glad that I remembered this year and I was able to share with you some of the traditions of our native home- Portugal.

Listen to one of the classic songs of the celebration –  “Sao Joao Bonito”







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