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The Brazilian Festa Junina, which dates back to Portuguese colonization, commemorates Saint Anthony, Saint John and Saint Peter and marks the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest. Sarine Arslanian details the various ways in which each region of Brazil celebrates this event, from traditional dances to colorful costumes.
Festa Junina is the term used to describe the traditional festivities that happen at the beginning of the Brazilian winter in June. It is a month to commemorate some of the most famous saints for Catholics; namely Saint Anthony, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Peter. It is also a month to honor rain, the harvest season and marital union. Visitors celebrate from mid-June until the end of July and in some cities, festivities even continue until late August. Those attending will be treated to typical Brazilian food, will dress up like farmers, enjoy bonfires and dance the quadrilha. After Carnival, it is the second most important popular celebration in Brazilian culture.
Festa Junina’s origins date back to Portuguese colonization, and the holiday has developed over time to incorporate Brazilian cultural elements. The culture of indigenous populations, Afro-Brazilians and European immigrants has all influenced how the festivities are held in different regions in Brazil. First originating in the countryside, where most religious people lived and where they relied more on rain for their agriculture, the festivities quickly spread to larger cities all around the country. Every region has its own way of celebrating, but the most impressive festivities and dances take place in the North East.
As June is the month when corn crops are harvested, the majority of sweet and savory snacks and cakes are made of corn. A few popular examples include pamonha, canjica, corn on the cob and corn cakes. In addition, rice pudding, the Brazilian version of mulled wine, sweet potatoes and much more are also included on the Festa Junina menu.
Quadrilha folk dances are a vital component of Festa Junina. Dances involve up to 30 colorfully dressed performers, while a chosen ‘bride and groom’ act as the center of the spectacle. Inspiration is taken from the 17th century French quadrilles, a type of traditional square dance, while the Brazilian adaptations are considerably more complex. Before the actual dance starts, a theater performance tells the story of a single man who is pressured into marrying a girl that is carrying his child. Everyone participates by singing traditional songs, including the lovers’ families, the police, the priests and everyone who comes from their ‘village’. Vibrant and highly convivial, these jovial dances are without a doubt the highlight of the Festa Junina.
Every year, national, regional and local quadrilha dance competitions are held all around the country:
Luis Gonzaga, locally known as ‘o rei do Baião’, is still a very popular artist and it is his songs that get played the most during Festa Juninas. Typical instruments include the triangle and the accordion.
A Luis Gonzaga quadrilha set for the Festa Juninas:
The typical clothes worn at the Festa Junina are inspired by vintage rural fashion as the themes of harvest and rain are central to the festivities. Young men wear shorts with braces, while women put their hair up in ponytails, wear checkered dresses and paint freckles on their faces.
Even though the festivities are held all around the country, it is in the Northeast that they are the most popular and impressive. The month of June is when people give thanks to the three catholic saints; Santo Antônio on the 13th, São João on the 24th and São Pedro on the 29th. As droughts are a serious issue in the region, ‘nordestinos’ celebrate the rain which is essential to their agriculture. Groups of people, called ‘festeiros’, come together to animate the streets, walking and singing across the cities.
The biggest and most impressive Festa Junina celebrations happen in the state of Paraiba, in the city Campina Grande, and in the state of Pernambuco, in the city of Caruaru, each of which gather millions of visitors every year. The state of Bahia is quite famous too for its festivities; thousands of tourists flock here every year to attend the São João celebrations, with most of the visitors going to the ones in Porto Seguro.
Moreover, in the state of Maranhão, they celebrate the Festa Junina with different variations – known as ‘Sotaques’ – of the Bumba-meu-Boi. The Bumba-meu-Boi dance is performed by a colorful troupe of performers. The spectacular costumes and dances alone are worth the detour to Maranhão, and the echo of the music on the colonial streets makes the experience even more magical. Like the other Festa Junina folk dances, Bumba-meu-Boi also serve a narrative function. Performers tell the story of a slave who is left by a plantation owner to care for his bull which then dies and is later revived. A black velvet bull costume embellished with sequins and ribbon is worn by one of the dancers during the spectacle.
Bumba-meu-Boi in São Luis:
People in the Southeast of the country are known for the events organised by the local community of businesses, churches and colleges. Festivities hold clear similarities to those in the rest of the country, as individuals run various stands with either food or games and quadrilha dances are enacted to entertain visitors.
The bonfire is also a traditional element expected at every Festa Junina. The ritual of gathering around a large flame derives from pagan tradition, as this custom is practiced to commemorate the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere each year. June can be a cold month, especially in the South, and by congregating around the warmth of the fire, the festival’s focus on community building is further emphasized.