Feast of St. Anthony in Portugal

Savoring Sardine Heaven

feast of st anthony lisbon costumes
••• Women don traditional costumes for the Feast of St. Anthony in Lisbon. Getty Images.

Looking out of a store window in Lisbon, Portugal, I witnessed a parade of vintage convertible cars progressing along Avenue Liberdade: They were filled with brides in all sizes, shapes and ages, dressed in all their bridal finery.

The store owner told me they were the “brides of St. Anthony,” also known as "the matchmaker saint," and it was part of the saint’s June 12-14 feast traditions. He said the city hall traditionally hosts the bridal couples for free if they are poor.

I was in Lisbon to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony and had begun the day by attending Mass at his church. I made my way through the crowd to the front altar and found a golden and crystal reliquary on display. At closer examination I observed some sort of bone inside. I later found out was part of the saint’s right forearm.

In the front lobby of the church was a small gift shop. What really caught my eye was a group of women selling bread rolls about the size of golf balls. People were pushing and shoving to buy them. I noted that many of the women returned to the church and pressed the bread against a glass-covered portrait of the saint.

Then I noticed that several women were scribbling messages on slips of paper, folding them up and sticking them into the frame around the portrait. I followed suit and wrote down a special prayer, dutifully folded it up and tucked it into the frame along with my bread ball.

A Touching Tradition

The tradition of "St. Anthony's Bread" goes back to 1263 A.D., when a child drowned in the Brenta River near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. The mother went to St. Anthony and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child.

Her son was saved, and her promise was kept. "St. Anthony's Bread," then, is the promise of giving alms in return for a favor asked of God through St. Anthony's intercession.

For Fans of Fado

Music enthusiasts eager to hear fado, the emotion-laden, dramatic music particular to the Iberian peninsula often find an image of Anthony right behind the fadista (singer) and instrumentalists.

Fado came long after Anthony, but its major theme is nostalgia and longing—for what is lost and for what has never been gained. Anthony fits right into this scene.

I left the church to see what else I could discover about St. Anthony.

Anthony of Padua

The man who became known to many as Anthony of Padua was Portuguese. He was a spiritual seaman, seeking new lands of the soul, just as other Portuguese explorers ventured into unknown waters.

He had the broad world view of a discoverer—and became a fearless missionary traveling first to Morocco and then through southern France and northern Italy on foot.

While in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, he encountered some difficulty in getting the local population to listen to him. Somewhat dejected, he went down to the shore, where the river Ariminus runs into the sea, and began to speak to the fishes.

A Multitude of Fish

No sooner had he spoken a few words when suddenly so great a multitude of fish, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood. All the fish kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony's face; all were arranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.

As he continued speaking, the fish began to open their mouths and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence. The people of the city, hearing of the miracle, made haste to witness it.

Sardines are a Local Specialty

I had heard that sardines represented those miraculous fish and were an important part of the festivities.

I went into a nice restaurant almost salivating thinking of the tasty fish for lunch.

Alas, the maitre’d almost sneered as he said they did not have sardines. I tried several other restaurants to no avail.

It wasn’t until a guy in the music store directed me down a small street lined with outside tables and a variety of small restaurants that I found them.

They were proudly displayed in all their silvery glory in a refrigerated case. Lunch was divine!

It turns out that the opening of sardine season coincides with the Feast of St. Anthony and all over the city people grilled them on every type of grill. The fancy restaurants can’t compete and folks wouldn’t pay their prices for this local specialty.

"The Matchmaker Saint" 

The fame of St. Anthony's miracles has never diminished, and even at the present day he is acknowledged as the greatest miracle worker of the times.

He is especially invoked for the recovery of things lost. Also, against starvation, barrenness; patron of amputees, animals, boatmen, Brazil, domestic animals, the elderly, expectant mothers, faith in the Blessed Sacrament, Ferrazzano, fishermen, harvests, horses, Lisbon, lower animals, mail, mariners, oppressed people, Padua, paupers, Portugal, sailors, sterility, swineherds, Tigua Indians, travel hostesses, travelers, and watermen.

June 13 is St. Anthony's Day

St. Anthony is known as the matchmaker saint and on the eve of his day, June 13th, girls try various methods of finding out whom they will wed.

One favorite way is for a girl to fill her mouth with water and hold it until she hears a boy's name mentioned. The name she hears is sure to be that of her future husband!

Another way to recognize "the gentleman" is to make an agreement with St. Anthony by a sign or an object that only the two of you know about.

A popular ritual advises:

  • Fill a small bowl with water
  • Write down the names of those you would like (or think you would like!) to be your perfect partner
  • Roll up each piece of paper and put them in the bowl
  • Place the bowl under your bed
  • The next day, look at the papers. The name that has opened up the most in your perfect partner!

Single women have been known to buy a small statue of Saint Anthony and place (or bury) it upside down for a week, blackmailing him to only put him in his normal position after they found a good husband.

A charming custom of the day is for a young man to present a pot of basil to the girl he hopes to wed. Within the petals is a verse or message that indicates the young man's passion.

Pots of basil are displayed on almost every balcony around the city and are often given as gifts with little verses invoking St. Anthony or of love and affection for the recipient.

Celebrating St. Anthony

When the entire city celebrates St. Anthony the night of June 12 to 13th, altars are built, parades are held and streets decorated the air is filled with the delicious smell of sardines being grilled at bonfires lining almost every street, especially in the Alfama district of the city.

The biggest parade is the Marchas Populares, along the Avenue Liberade. I found an ideal viewing spot not far from my hotel along with a few friends and watched as countless marchers passed by.

Every neighborhood in Lisbon has its own contingent with colorful costumes, floats and marching bands. There is a prize for the best group but as the parade continued past midnight, my friends and I got hungry and headed over to the Alfama district for sardines.

We had been invited to a small neighborhood bar that had a patio behind it. There we were treated to beautifully grilled sardines, served on a slice of bread on paper plates and napkins.

We drank sangria from plastic cups and licked our fingers as we reached for another fish. The pile of bones stacked up in the middle of our table and still the fish kept coming. I was in sardine heaven.

Of all the beautifully prepared meals I had while in Portugal, this midnight snack remains a highlight.

By Jacqueline Harmon Butler