Santo António: Celebrating 13th June with Lisboa’s Patron Saint

With spring in full bloom, summer is just round the corner and with it one of Lisboa’s most eagerly-awaited festivals – the Festas dos Santos Populares, which the Portuguese capital celebrates as the Festival of Santo António. For two days in June, 12th and 13th,  the city forgets itself as Lisboetas everywhere honour their adopted patron saint (St Vincent is the true patron but he has gone out of fashion – possibly because he was Spanish).

An overwhelming feeling of goodwill pervades the narrow alleyways and winding footpaths of the ancient neighbourhoods of Alfama, Castelo, Bica, Graça and the patchwork Bairro Alto district. Work grinds to a halt.

But evidence of laborious preparation is everywhere: multicoloured paper lanterns and streamers festoon balconies and walls and snake up lamp-posts. Squeezed onto cobbled pavements are rows of squat, weathered benches behind which sit squat, weathered women selling manjericos – tiny pots of basil – the bouquet of which can be savoured by rubbing the leaves together (legend has it that to try and smell it using just your nose will bring bad luck!).

Attached to the shrub is a folded note hiding an ancient rhyme. But it is the citizens themselves who reflect the passion of the occasion. During the evening of June 12, long after it’s been closed to traffic, Lisboa’s Avenida da Liberdade becomes a dazzling parade ground – the venue for the spectacular annual marchas populares. It is along this historic thoroughfare that the party truly begins.

The procession is made up from residents of the capital’s old bairros, or neighborhoods. Each wears elaborate costumes in a proud display of colourful flamboyance. Groups of hardy souls hoist aloft huge animated frescos depicting colloquial symbolism and scenes plucked from local folklore. It’s vibrant, enchanting street theatre employs young and old alike and prizes are awarded to the best-dressed participant. Hundreds take part and by the time the procession has exhausted itself it’s well past midnight.

But if the marchas populares represents a vestige of controlled revelry (with VIPs seated in grandstands and the rest of the throng wedged against metal crowd barriers) then the remaining small hours of the morning can only be described as a free-for-all.

The old Moorish quarter of Alfama heaves with bodies eager to join the mêlée. Tumbling façades and picturesque, whitewashed churches resemble a postcard image from bygone days while in the streets below, people greet one another with cheer and a beer.

No space is wasted. Sprawling terraces and tiny alcoves are all commandeered as surrogate tavernas to supply the demand.  The sizzling aroma of grilled sardines, barbecued pork and the sweet infusion of deep fried farturas – a kind of swirling doughnut – permeates the air and tortures the taste buds, while overflowing jars of potent sangria are permanently on hand to chase it all down.

The whole population seems to descend on this smudge of land to soak up the spirit of Lisboa’s patron saint.

But who was St Anthony, and why does he play such an important role in the lives of everyday folk? St Anthony of Padua was born in Lisbon in 1192 and joined the Franciscan order in 1220. A learned and passionate preacher, the friar became renowned for his devotion to the poor and his ability to convert heretics. Numerous statues and paintings depict him carrying the Infant Jesus on a book, while others show him preaching to the fishes. During the eighteenth century a church was built on what is believed to be the site of the house in which St Anthony was born. Destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755, work began two years later on a new church which was partly funded by donations collected by local children with the cry ‘tostaozinhos para o Santo António’ – a small coin for St Anthony! It’s a habit still practiced today by the neighbourhood kids at the beginning of June, while the floor of the tiny chapel in the crypt is strewn with escudos or nowadays the cents and Euros and the walls scrawled with devotional messages from worshippers.

St Anthony died in Padua, Italy in 1232 and was canonised a year later. Through the ages St Anthony has also become associated with fertility rites. Legend has it that youngsters would burn artichokes in order to predict the identity of their future lovers and to win the saint’s blessing.

From the 1950s onwards, the Lisboa authorities (this time with the dictator Salazar’s blessing) selected engaged couples with limited resources and encouraged them to tie the knot in a collective ceremony in St Anthony’s church. The practice ended with the Portuguese revolution in 1974 as it was too quickly identified with the Estado Novo and the mechanics of authoritarian rule. Lately, though, the ceremony has been re-introduced and is now considered an essential element in the festivities.

After indulgence of the night before, a distinctly solemn tone descends over the city the following day. A far more dignified procession begins to thread its way from St Anthony’s church around midday and meanders through the confined environs of Alfama. A statue of the saint carrying the Infant Jesus stands on a garland of flowers and heads a cortege of clergy, civic dignitaries and local officials. Subdued onlookers toss more flowers from balconies while others, in a touching gesture, place effigies and candles on doorsteps and in hallways as a mark of respect. For many, this is an occasion for reflection, prayer and atonement.
By Paul Bernhardt