Feast of St. Anthony in Portugal

Savoring Sardine Heaven

feast of st anthony lisbon costumes
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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 worldview 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

Sardines represent these miraculous fish and are an important part of the festivities. The opening of sardine season coincides with the Feast of St. Anthony and all over the city people grill them on every type of grill. To eat them, look for small local restaurants on side streets: the fancy restaurants can’t compete and folks won'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 is 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. Every neighborhood in Lisbon has its own contingent with colorful costumes, floats, and marching bands. There is a prize for the best group and the parade continues past midnight.