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The Festa de Sant Antoni de Abad or Festival of Saint Anthony Abbot happens on, or around the 17th January, depending on where you are, and what day of the week the 17th falls on. Some towns and villages choose the weekend closest the day, and others don’t.
The festival of Saint Anthony happens in many towns in both Catalonia and the Valencian Community. It is strongly linked to blessing the animals, and then followed by the Tres Tombs (The Three Turns) which is an ancient ritual that has now turned into a festive parade. It used to be for the farm and working animals, but these days many people bring their pets to be blessed!
Saint Anthony was born in Egypt, to a rich family, but aged 20, when his parents died, he sold all of his possessions and gave the money away to the poor. He retired to live an ascetic life, sleeping in an empty tomb. He was the founder of the hermit movement and considered to be the biggest of the Fathers of the Desert. These fathers went to the desert in order to pursue saintliness and perfectionism. He stayed in the desert, in solitude, for over 80 years. During his time there he showed amazing strength in the face of the demons that taunted and ill-treated him, in what has been described as being extreme and diverse. It is thought that he was 105 years old when he died.
He is known popularly as Saint Anthony of the Piglet – this is because he is depicted in late Gothic iconography with a piglet or hog. He was also renowned for his patronage of those with whips, so related to animals such as the asses and horses.
His festival falls during a critical point during winter, probably one of the coldest weeks during winter and it seems that nature is at a standstill. Actually this week is known popularly as the week of bearded ones, as it is also at this time that other saints, who have been depicted with fine beards, are also celebrated. These are Saint Paul, Saint Fructus, Saint Mauro and of course Saint Anthony Abad. Tradition says that their beards carry the cold.
Ancient cultures found that this time of the year was the perfect time for fecundity rituals, as well as a good time for the purification of animals, people and the fields. This was the moment, and of course still is, to renovate the yearly cycle. Even since pre-Christian times, there have been traditions that have taken the same approach as the Festival of Saint Anthony Abad.
The festival acts like a bridge between the Christmas period and the festivities that are soon to come, such as Carnival and Candelera. In some areas, which are mostly in the south of Catalonia or the north of the Valencian Community, there is more debauchery, as well as theatrical representations of Saint Anthony Abad’s life. The demons play big parts in these theatrical performances.
There’s no doubt that it’s necessary to have fire because of the time of year, with its darkness and cold. Yet the fire rituals that happen at this festival also have symbolic meaning. Firstly cutting down wood has its own ceremonial flavour, as does piling it in a certain way. In the location where the theatrical representation of Saint Anthony’s life occurs, there’s a hut which is covered by branches. At the end of the performance this will then be set on fire, so that the party can continue around the bonfire. These acts mix the sacred and the profane, and the solemn and the banal.
This festival is very linked with the Tres Tombs (Three Turns), which is when the animals are blessed. Of course when we relied so much more on our animals to help us get the land prepared for crops, the importance of having healthy, strong animals was huge. This was the time of year to get the farm animals blessed, and as the name suggests, the route is done three times by them and their owners, as part of the ritual. These days, as you can see in the photos taken recently in Tarragona, there are still plenty of people who take part in this wonderful festival. People will also bring their pets along to be blessed.