Bonfires & san antón

17 January 2009

Yesterday was the festival of San Antón [Saint Anthony the Great], the 3rd C. Egyptian saint protector of animals, & founder of monasticism. In Jaén the feast day coincides with the end of the olive harvest, and in dozens of plazas in every barrio of the city, great mounds of olive branches are burned in bonfires, the green leaves firing brightly before being transformed into a rain of weightless ash.

I was in the plaza de la Mercéd, a small bare stone plaza in the old town, in front of a 17th C. palace & an unadorned plain stone church with three stained glass windows over the facade, a statue of the Virgen in the niche above the entrance, an iron cross against the front. The plaza was cut through by one small street, and another looped around the church and went down a shallow stairway, & there were orange trees in front of the palace. Everyone stood in crowds by the churchfront, or in front of the palace, or across the narrow street by the even smaller square where there was the busier of the two bars & apartments, and ancient stonefronted fountain with potable water for families & horses.

In the center: the bonfire, radiating heat, and a mound of big six or seven footlong olive branches, leaves on, fed in constantly by a couple of men wearing field clothes & using a firehardened wooden stick as a poker & flaring as the leaves caught. There was a temporary zinc-topped bar set up in front of the church & another in front of a small apartment, selling plastic cups of beer & tinto con limón & skewers of chicken and bread & chorizo & great bags of popcorn, which everyone had in hand; the bags came free with the drinks; you bought small paper tickets from the moneybox and then presented them to the two men pouring the cañas or the tintos.

Children would rush up from time to time, daring the heat, to throw their own smaller branches in. The smoke columned up, with the particular fragrant odor of burning olive wood, & ash peppered hair & jackets & floated inthe drinks, almost a baptism of ash, and when the fire began to die children began to run up from the tiny sidestreets with flammable objects – cardboard, staves of wood, a red leather armchair, a carseat – to feed it still, and near the end of the fire in la Mercéd a dozen or so older men & women, grandparents, began to sing & made arches with their hands, pairs of them, the last pair rushing under the arch to be the front of the tunnel of dancers, the whole unit moving around the dying fire & singing, what must have been a traditional dance, a rural dance, something done during the harvest, but now only the older folks were dancing, & one father & his little daughter, and fewer people knew the song.

On the Avenida de Barcelona, near the nightclubs & the newer part of town, the bonfire was in a bit vacant dirt lot with a chainlink fence around it, next to apartment buildings and across the street from a park, one big fire in the center, low when I got there, just embers, and a dozen small conflagrations of hot coals scattered around, and crowds, not just young people but everyone, some with plastic folding tables, engaging in the botellón.

At one small firepit, back in the corner, boys of 10 or 12 lined up to jump over the flames. I was drinking my vodka tonic out of a cardboard Don Simon container, because my plastic cup had broken, and so was reliving the youth of the Spaniards I was with, teachers in Jaén at the schools of American friends of mine. They’d done this, I was told, in secondary school & the university because cups were too expensive.

Soon four or five of us were lining up with the children, we twice their size, to jump the bonfire. I myself made it over the flames unscathed.

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5 Responses to “Bonfires & san antón”

  1. Jackie Says:

    Picturing you gingerly hopping over flames amuses the hell out of me. I watched a Food Network special with Mario Batali where he cooked fish over a fire made of olive branches.

  2. davidhur Says:

    Our next meeting will include the last two paragraphs.

  3. Jim Sligh Says:

    Dave, the next time we meet, we’re drinking whiskey.

  4. Nora Says:

    Oh, Don Simon boxes…


  5. Jim, this is Liam Carnahan. I like your blog, and we’re doing similar things. Can I put a link to your blog on mine?


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