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Sardines, Brides and Basil: Saint Anthony’s Day in Lisbon

“With Saint Anthony’s Day, come the winds” our neighbor said. I just nodded in agreement like I knew what the heck he was talking about. Not being Catholic in a predominantly Catholic country we are sometimes at a loss with some everyday references. I figured this was yet another example. And then the captain of a sailing boat we hired for a sunset cruise in the harbor with visiting friends told us to go into Lisbon for the grilled sardines on Saint Anthony’s Day in a way like I was the only fool onboard who wasn’t in the know. And, finally, our Portuguese teacher was coming to Lisbon for the weekend of Saint Anthony’s Day and showed us images of the celebration. Three reliable sources, third time’s the charm, maybe we should go check this out. So when the winds kicked up, blowing my golf ball sideways a few times too often, and June 12th approached, we secured a room at our go-to overnight hotel in the Chiado neighborhood and headed into Lisbon to see what all the hubbub was about.

Portugal has many holidays with which we were previously unfamiliar. Liberty Day (April 25) commemorating the Carnation Revolution when the dictator, Salazar, was overthrown in 1974. Republic Day (October 5th) commemorating when Portugal became a Republic vs a monarchy in 1910. Portugal Day (June 10) commemorating Portugal’s poet laureate Luis de Camões (also the anniversary of Portugal’s independence from Spain). And there are many other Catholic based holidays as well.

Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost things but here, locally, he is also the patron Saint of Lisbon where he was from, despite being known as Saint Anthony of Padua (Italy) where he later lived and died. In a kind of patron Saint double whammy, the wives of Lisbon’s fisherman used to pray to Saint Anthony for their husband’s safe return when they set to sea. As such, Saint Anthony’s day is a big deal in Lisbon.

The festivities begin with a set of weddings at the Se, the Cathedral of Lisbon. The tradition dates back to 1629 “when Francisco da Rocha bequeathed money to a poor orphan” for her wedding on the condition that the nuptials be held on Saint Anthony’s Day. In the 1950s the tradition was revived from the ash bin of lost things by a local newspaper and is carried on today with much pomp, circumstance and tourism surrounding the early afternoon weddings and night time parades. (Source: Pots of basil (manjericão) are sold in stands to be given as a symbol of love or friendship and stands can be found throughout the city.

The parades also include teams from the local neighborhoods and groups (schools, mercados) who compete in dance contests then parade down Avenida da Liberdade at night. The teams parade past in colorful outfits with old and young competing as one big group.

In the evening, as the sun goes down, sardine grills fire up, the beer kegs are tapped and sangria is mixed and the churros are baked in preparation for “Lisbon’s longest day”, or night as the case may be, where the party goes on into the madrugada (wee hours). For us, our pumpkin arrived to take us home a little after 1am as the party was still kicked up in high gear in Alfama and nearby neighborhoods. A night to remember even if my iPhone only captured a few grainy images in the nighttime light.

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