Santo Antonio Festival

Santo Antonio Festival
© Jose Manuel / All rights reserved

Festival of St Anthony

As summer really starts to take hold in Lisbon, so starts its annual month of celebration and revelry. St Anthony (Santo Antonio), often revered as the true patron saint of Lisbon, gives his name to this June event, which combines religious celebration with extensive amounts of non-religious goings on and lots of sardines. 

The Santo Antonio Festival is quite a protracted affair and for the whole of June there are concerts, theatre, puppetry, sports and exhibitions all over the city, including fado musicians in the trams.  However, the main focus is on more traditional festivities in the oldest Lisbon neighbourhoods (bairros) where the streets and squares are adorned with colourful decorations, sardines are grilled by both households and bars, and many eat out together in a lively street party for all the family, with music and folk dancing to accompany.

These old bairros (such as Alfama, Castelo, Bica, Graça and Bairro Alto) also pit against each other in the culmination of the festival, the parade on the Eve of Santo Antonio, the 12th of June. After practising for many months, and creating elaborate costumes and props, each neighbourhood marches down the Avenida da Liberdade to music and applause hoping to be crowned winner.

Sardines being grilled - Lisbon festival

Sardines being grilled

Jose Manuel

The 13th is the anniversary of Saint Anthony’s death and a public holiday in Lisbon. One of the main religious ceremonies of this special day is the collection of the bread. The mother of the household attends the special mass in order to collect bread for her family, which represents safety for her children. This celebrates the miracle of St Anthony who returned a dead child to his mother alive after her promise to provide bread to all poor children in Lisbon. 

Throughout the month, the smell of barbecued sardines mingles with that of the sweet basil plant which is sold everywhere for the occasion, Santo Antonio being the saint of marriage and couples in love, and this is the gift you should give to your loved one. You’ll see them on windowsills everywhere. No doubt linked to this is the interesting tradition of the Brides of Santo Antonio; a tradition revived in the 1950s to give poorer couples the chance to have a special day.  Even today people apply and compete to be included in the mass ceremony of white gowns held in the Sé Cathedral, where 16 couples tie the knot each year; all shown on TV, of course.  Furthermore, it is said that in times gone by young Portuguese ladies seeking a husband would bury a small figurine of St Anthony, only unearthing him when Mr Right was found, whereupon the statue would be washed and stay with the happy couple forever more.