The reorganisation of the churches and parishes of Menorca by King Jaime II of Mallorca in the late XIII century included that of St John the Baptist, situated five kilometres south of Ciutadella. This parish had its name changed following the Christian conquest of Menorca from the parish of Artruix (a name designating the whole of the south of Ciutadella) to being known as the parish of St John the Baptist. Today, it is known as Sant Joan de Missa, the little parish church which lost its parochial rites on being linked to the parish of Ciutadella, the home of Menorca’s cathedral.
The fiesta’s Medieval origins are also apparent in the group of horsemen and their attire that lead the proceedings. The municipal council of Ciutadella would elect a committee from different social sectors to administer the religious buildings and charitable works. This was led by a nobleman and included a priest, two farmers and an artisan, and the committee members were known as ‘Caixers’. The committee also organised important festivities, the most important being the birth of St John the Baptist on 24 June, the eve of which a pilgrimage was arranged to the hermitage. After mass everyone returned to the town at sunset when bonfires were lit and people celebrated by dancing in the streets. The following morning mass was held in honour of the saint.
Over the centuries, new elements were added to the festivities and other figures incorporated such as the flagbearer (Caixer Fadri) and the Herald (Fabioler). Medieval games of chivalry were incorporated and trophies of green canes and silver spoons were presented to the winners (a custom which may even date back to Roman times when green palms were presented to the victors of games). Another tradition, the spectacular figure of the ‘Homo des Be’, representing St John the Baptist and the ram he carried signifying Christ, the Lamb of God, was only introduced in the 19th century. In 1843 the rules were laid down for all the acts and costumes, including the apparel worn by the horsemen and committee representing the different social status of the townspeople.
Diumenge des Be (Sunday of the Lamb)
Today’s interpretation of these ancient festivities officially begins on the Sunday before the Saint’s Day, known as Diumenge des Be (Sunday of the Lamb). The Fiestas take place at the Summer Solstice, which in pagan times meant the celebration of fertility of both women and the crops. Originally, this required a human sacrifice but with the advent of Christianity, evolved to become symbolic of St John the Baptist. This could be the beginning of this unique start to the fiestas when the sacrificial figure is represented by a strong young man, the ‘Homo de Be’.
The crowds gather, waiting for the first notes of the flute and beat of drum from the ‘fabioler’ (herald) on the balcony of the Caiser Senyor. The Committee gathers and the Caixer Senyor presents the red and white flag of Sant Joan to the Caixer Fadri and the group sets out to invite the authorities and dignitaries to the festivities, led by the ‘fabioler’.
Accompanying them barefooted is the Homo des Be, dressed in sheepskins and carrying a docile year-old male lamb on his shoulders to represent the living symbol of Saint John the Baptist. The lamb has been prepared, washed and combed during the week beforehand and adorned with colored ribbons and red crosses painted on its back. Taking the traditional route around the town, throughout the day they visit the Town Hall, Bishop’s Palace, nobility, participating caixers and hospitals, stopping for the customary refreshments offered to them while their hosts pet the sheep. The procession is closely followed by the lively townspeople who try and touch the sheep for luck.
In recent years, the celebrations of Sant Joan have become much more than a local festival with many visitors arriving from all over Spain, making it by far the largest, nosiest and busiest event on Menorca’s fiesta calendar. The typical fiesta drink of this and of all fiestas on the island is ‘pomada’, a potent mixture of gin (a heritage from the British occupation) and lemonade or fresh lemon juice, sold in little plastic cups at stalls outside most bars.
Throughout the fiesta celebrations, the magnificent black Menorquina horses play one of the most important roles, their shiny coats dressed up with ribbons and rosettes and mounted by proud cavallers (horsemen) in their matching black costumes. Officially recognized as an indigenous breed in 1989, these elegant animals are slender with long limbs, yet muscular and powerful with a noble character and lively look.
Click on the articles Menorca’s Most Famous Fiesta, Sant Joan de Ciudadella and Menorcan Horses: Fiesta Heroes for more information.
Origins of the Sant Joan Celebrations
Throughout history, Summer Solstice celebrations have been an important element of social, cultural, and religious life throughout the northern hemisphere. Originally a pagan Celtic ritual on the shortest night of the year, the holiday was christianised during the 5th century by the deeply religious king Clovis and named ‘Saint John’s Day’ after St John the Baptist, who was born on 24 June.
Most celebrations take place on the eve of the Saint’s birthday with fireworks, bonfires, music, singing and dancing. In some places there are additional activities such as jumping through flames of bonfires for good luck, or taking a cleansing dip in the ocean to purify oneself for the new season. The prevalence of fire is said to have been used ‘to give more power to the Sun’ which would become weaker as the days got shorter until the winter solstice. Symbolically, the fire also has the function of ‘cleansing’ the people who watched.
While in most countries the symbol of fire has continued to be one of the major elements of the Sant Joan festivities, Ciutadella developed its own rituals unique to Menorca, the Festes de Sant Joan de Ciutadella, which combines elements of this traditional fiesta with celebrations for its own patron saint, Sant Joan.
Possible origins of Sant Joan de Ciutadella
It is believed that the fiesta of Sant Joan originates from the annual pilgrimage undertaken by a kind of brotherhood, which included people of different status, both rich and poor including farmers, townsfolk and nobility. Today, these people are represented in the ‘Junta de Caixers’ (brotherhood committee). There is an ancient document which states that a fraternity was linked to the church of Sant Joan d’Artruix, (now Sant Joan de Missa) consisting of a religious person, a nobleman, two farmers and two citizens with traditional occupations.
They had to maintain and look after the church and its possessions. Later, another person was added to carry the flag of the fraternity. Every year on Saint Joan’s day a pilgrimage to the church of Sant Joan de Missa took place when families and friends also joined in. The party was invited for a refreshing drink at the nobleman’s house as well as by the clergyman on the way back to the city, and participants on horseback held a kind of parade through the streets of Ciutadella. Each year, the festival became more important and medieval equestrian games started to be held. From those early days, Sant Joan grew slowly but surely to a very special celebration for the people of Ciutadella.
Today, the Committee of ‘Caixers’ is elected for a period of two years. Each member plays a key role in the fiesta and is dressed strictly in formal attire, representing the ancient society of Ciutadella which consists of:
Caixer Senyor (Nobility), head of the party and from one of the aristocratic families of Ciutadella He is always the first son or family head of one of the noble families of Ciutadella and selected by previous ‘Caixer Senyors’. The ‘Caixer Senyor’ appoints the rest of the committee except the clergyman.
Caixer Capellà (Clergyman), a church member or a priest provides for the religious part of the festival.
Caixer Menestral or Caixer Casat (Artisan) someone with an artisan or traditional occupation and always a married man. He guards the flag during the two years.
Caixer Pages (Farm Workers), two people who have to be farmers, one from the north of the municipality of Ciutadella (Caixer Pagès de Tramuntana) and the other from the south side (Caixer Pagès de Migjorn), named after winds of the north and south coasts. The Caixer Pagès also have the honour of providing the ram for the Homo des Be procession, which alternates each year.
Caixer Fadrí, (Unmarried Rider), can be a citizen or a farmer and always carries the flag during the festivities. He must not be married.
Flabioler (Flute Player) accompanies the committee of Caixers and is in charge of announcing the orders with the drum and flute during the festivities, but he doesn’t form part of the committee.