Festa de São João

In Glória on June 24th, we celebrated the Festa de São João, St. John's Day, celebrating John the Baptist. Like many religious holidays, the celebration had little to do with religion. This festival has been celebrated in Portugal for more than 600 years. It has sacred roots but is also mixed with pagan traditions. In Glória, it was sort of a cross between Sadie Hawkins Day and Trick or Treating.

The ginásio (high school) where I taught sponsored a quadrilha, which was similar to square dancing or line dancing. Participants practiced for weeks so we could put on a performance. It was customary for females to ask males to be their partners and everyone dressed up like the Brazilian version of hillbillies, thus the similarity to Sadie Hawkins Day.

The first June I was there (1968) I asked Zé Francisco (who worked at the Brazilian Legion of Assistance to create chicken cooperatives) to be my partner. I wore a red print dress someone had loaned to me.

The next year (1969) I asked my student José Augusto to be my partner. He was a very nice, hardworking tailor who spent evenings at his foot-pedaled sewing machine with a school book propped in front of him.  Since there had been no high school in the town for most of his life, when the ginásio was founded, he went back to school in his mid-twenties, so he was a few years older than I was. That year, I had a green & pink print dress made for myself by a local seamstress. I still have it in a closet in my attic, although I will never fit into it ever again.

We danced to music on a recording by Luis Gonzaga, featuring lots of accordian music. Before I left Brazil, I copied the dance instructions in both English and Portuguese and took a Luis Gonzaga record home with me. On several occasions when I was a teacher in public schools in the U.S., I taught a shortened version of the quadrilha to students for International Week performances.

In Glória, my student Judite was the "caller" who would shout out the moves we made.

The quadrilha was fun ---and some of the moves were humorous. For example, Judite would call out "Here comes the rain," and we would hold our hands protectively over our heads. Then she would call, "Watch out for the mud," and we would pretend we were wading through deep mud, picking up our feet in an exaggerated way.

Most of the participants were students, but other young people in the town participated, including Brunie (the other Volunteer there) and me.

Several other traditions of São João were that people built bonfires in front of their homes and roasted cobs of corn on the coals. Pamonha, a sweet corn pudding, was also popular. The purposes of the festival were to celebrate rural life and to thank the saints for the rain which comes in the late fall, winter, and early spring months (May through September south of the equator.) The June solstice marks the beginning of winter in Brazil.

Young men would wear a half of a coconut shell on a string around their necks and go door to door asking for genipap. a sweet liquor which they drank from the shells.

Forty years ago, São João's Day was mostly celebrated in rural areas of the northeast (like Glória) for a day or two, but now June is a full month of festas to honor several saints. Throughout Brazil,the month is filled with singing, dancing, food, concerts fireworks, costumes and festas


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.