Festa Juninas, which is also known as festa de São João because of the celebration of St. John the Baptist, are the annual celebrations that take place throughout Brazil in the beginning of the Brazilian winter (June and July). Originally introduced by the Portuguese colonialists of northeastern Brazil in the 1500-1800, these festivals have spread throughout Brazil today.
As I write this, I hear a woman’s voice on a P.A. system a few blocks away calling out dance moves for a Festa Junina taking place at a nearby school. This is the second such celebration at that school, and every school and church seems to have one sometime during June or July. In the northeast, these celebrations are said to be as popular as Carnival.
I got this photo of a neighbor one weekend as they were heading out to a festa. Everywhere you look on the weekend in June and July, you see little peasants running around, eager to get to their festas.
Originally, these popular festivals coincided with the end of the rainy seasons of most states in the northeast, and provided farmers with an opportunity to give thanks to Saint John for the rain. Bonfires are lit after each event, and are generally accompanied by fireworks (similar to Midsummer celebrations in the United Kingdom and St. John festivals in Portugal and Scandinavia).
In keeping with their origin, the festas also celebrate rural life and feature peasant costumes and country food (corn on the cob, and many sweets derived from corn).
Like Saint John’s Day (June 23), the festas celebrate marital union, and features a quadrilha (sort of a square dance), with couples dancing around a mock wedding whose bride and groom are the central attraction of the dancing. (Little did we know when we were married that we tied the knot on such an important day!)
The celebrations typically take place in an arraial, a huge tent made of raw material (with a thatched roof) that was reserved for special parties in old rural areas. But in the cities, tents of colored flags replace the thatched roof.
Men dress up as farm boys with large straw hats and women wear pigtails, freckles, and painted gap teeth and red-checkered dresses–all in a loving tribute to the origins of Brazilian country life, and of themselves, some of whom are recent immigrants from the countryside to cities, and some of whom return to the rural areas during that season to visit family.
The young adults I’ve spoken with here are chagrined at the costumes, saying that they are racist and shouldn’t be worn. But the adults just laugh and say it’s part of the tradition.
These festivals can be seen throughout Brazil. Two northeastern towns in particular have competed with each other for the title of “Biggest São João Festival in the World,” Caruaru (in the state of Pernambuco), and Campina Grande, in Paraíba state. In fact, Caruaru features in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the biggest outdoor country festival.
There was a Festa Junina at the U.S. Consulate last week, but we missed it. Life goes on.