When the Celts first made their migration from the upper reaches of Europe down to the Iberian Peninsula it was the mid Iron Age. With them they brought to this green and familiar seeming land many traditions and stories, only few of which have survived today. Unlike the common view of Spain as a hot, passionate, flamenco dancing, guitar playing culture, the history of the Galician people is marked by ancient nights full of magic and mystery, of witches circled in the darkness, churning fiery brews to ward off evil spirits, and attract the good.
The ‘Conxuro de Queimada’ is one of these surviving rituals (though there is debate if the rite is actually as old as some claim, or if it was in fact a more recent invention around the 1950’s. Entirely possible that even if it was dreamed up in the 20th century, that there was some evidence tying it to an earlier time). Queimada itself is a spirit distilled from wine and then flavored with herbs, then often sugar, lemon peel, coffee, and cinnamon.
The ritual of the drink is supposed to be a warding one that frightens off any spirits in the area with malintent. The forests of Galicia are often referred to as the Bosque Animada, or the animated wood, where said ne’er-do-welling sprites lie in wait to do travelers harm. It was originally a witches brew, but is now an all occasions kind of event, whether you’re just meeting up with friends or having a big party, queimada is a great addition to the get together.
But of course the most perfect night to have your conxuro is the Noche de San Juan, or St. John’s night (also called Witches’ Night), which is June 23rd. The conxuro demands a certain level of spooky ambiance, so once night falls, after brewing up the queimada, people gather round, turn off the lights, and recite the ‘spell’ meant to ward off evil.
“ …Hear! Hear the roars
of those that cannot
stop burning in the firewater,
becoming so purified.
And when this beverage
goes down our throats,
we will get free of the evil
of our soul and of any charm…”
(You can read the whole thing here )
Then, the queimada is lit on fire. It burns an incredible bright blue, and as the brandy burns off (and is added back in slowly), the fire makes ‘sigils’ and ‘ letters’ on top of the liquid, supposedly writing in the witches’ language (it is actually just a byproduct of how the brandy burns, but it’s neat nevertheless).
After the fire burns out, the queimada is ready! Poured out into cups and shared among the gathered, making for a happy party indeed.