We The Italians | Italian traditions: The feasts of St. Anthony, between bonfires and blessing of animals

Italian traditions: The feasts of St. Anthony, between bonfires and blessing of animals

Italian traditions: The feasts of St. Anthony, between bonfires and blessing of animals

  • WTI Magazine #123 Jan 19, 2020
  • 493

In Italy we have a real veneration for St. Anthony the Abbot (not to be confused with Anthony the patron saint of Padua): let’s review the dozens of events organized in his honor on January 17th, the date of his death, from Lombardy to Sicily. And yet, reading some hints of his biography one discovers that the saint has no connection with our country: Anthony was an Egyptian hermit, who lived in the fourth century A.D., to whom we owe the beginning of the so-called "Christian monasticism", or rather the choice to spend his life alone in search of a more intense communion with God. Evidently this "primacy" was enough to spread the cult throughout Europe, to which many popular traits were added over time.

Since medieval times, St. Anthony has been invoked in the West as the patron saint of butchers, farmers and breeders and as the protector of domestic animals; this, perhaps, because from the pig the Antonians (Anthony's followers) extracted the fat to prepare emollients to be spread on plagues. Antonio, tradition says, was also a thaumaturge capable of curing the most terrible diseases. And then, there is the popular belief that the Saint helps to find lost things. In northern Italy they say "Sant'Antoni dala barba bianca fam trua quel ca ma manca" (St. Anthony with the white beard let me find what I miss) and in the south - where he is often called Saint Anthony, to distinguish him from Anthony of Padua - "Sant'Antonio di velluto, fammi ritrovare quello che ho perduto” (Saint Anthony of velvet, let me find what I have lost).


Among the many rites performed in honor of St. Anthony, that of lighting fires occupies an important place. Starting from Novoli, in Salento (Apulia), where the show is really impressive, as well as the affluence: 200,000 people are expected for the feast of Focara and St. Anthony Abbot.

From January 16th to January 18th, in fact, the focara is lit: a huge bonfire, the largest in the Mediterranean basin, consisting of a giant pyre 25 meters high and 20 meters wide, made by 70,000 bundles of vines, which is set on fire according to precise rituals and traditions. A spectacle to be seen at least once in a lifetime, ending with a great fireworks display.


Lombardy is one of the regions where Saint Anthony is most celebrated. Only in the southwest of Milan, on January 17th, bonfires are traditionally lit in 12 municipalities! They are: Albairate, Bernate Ticino, Besate, Boffalora sopra Ticino, Cassinetta di Lugagnano, Corbetta, Cuggiono, Cusago, Morimondo, Ozzero, Robecco sul Naviglio and Turbigo.

We then point out, among the many, the fires of Erba (Como), Casorate Primo (Pavia), Pontoglio (Brescia), Orezzo (Bergamo), Sant'Angelo Lodigiano (Lodi) - where offelle, a typical local dessert, are distributed - Vimercate (Monza Brianza), Varese. On St. Anthony's Day, at 11 am, on the churchyard of the church of Sant'Antonio alla Motta in Varese there will be the blessing of animals and the throwing of balloons by primary school children. In Saronno (Varese) there will be the 18th festival with the blessing of animals and cars, followed by the bonfire in the Alpini park.


In some villages, St. Anthony's Day is traditionally preceded by Carnival. This is the case of Mamoiada, in the province of Nuoro in Sardinia, where it is celebrated on January 16th and 17th: all night long, bonfires light up various squares of the town, propitiating the advent of the new year. At the same time, the traditional masks of the Mamuthones and Issohadores come out of the houses and dance around the fire, giving life to the first carnival "parade": one of the most evocative and ancestral spectacles of the Sardinian land. Of course, there are also tastings of local products, prepared by the wise hands of the women of the town, such as the typical sweet papassinu biancu and nigheddu and the coccone 'in mele (sweet bread with honey and saffron).

The fires are also protagonists in Ottana, Sorgono, Samudeo and many other Sardinian municipalities.


In Troina (Enna) St. Anthony the Abbot is celebrated with two feasts during the year, one in January and one in July. The first one starts many days before the actual feast, with young people from the various districts collecting large piles of wood that will be burned on the eve of the 17th.

It is in fact on the evening of January 16th that the "pagghiara" are lit, huge bonfires that are built in all districts of the town: those who come to admire them, there are many typical delicacies on offer. The traditional event is organized by the Confraternity of St. Anthony.


In Abruzzo, in Fara Filiorum Petri (Chieti), on the afternoon of January 16th, the farchie, imposing cylindrical bundles of reeds tied with branches of red willow, 7-9 meters high and with a diameter of about one meter, leave the districts in procession. They are carried into the square in front of the small church of St. Anthony the Abbot, erected by force of arms and set on fire, among ritual songs and incitements. At this point there is also a dispute to judge the best farchia: the straightest one, with the right alignment of the knots, the correct arrangement of the reeds to avoid swelling or twisting, the dimensions.

The flames wrap the high columns of reeds and reach the top by exploding the firecrackers hidden at the top that contribute to feed the big torches and the popular rejoicing. The tradition comes from the legend that in 1799 St. Anthony stopped the French, who wanted to occupy Fara, by setting fire to the wood they were supposed to cross. (thanks to Elio Torlontano for his contribution)


The feast of Sant'Anthony celebrated on January 17th and in the days preceding it in Macerata Campania (Caserta) is one of the most unique in the region. Young people, adults, old people and even children, join forces for the preparation of this event, especially in the creation of the huge floats of Sant'Anthony, which on the feast days parade through the streets of the town together with 20 other floats.

On the floats takes place the baton of pastellessa, that is a particular orchestra composed of about 50 performers - percussionists, called bottari, conducted by the baton leader in the role of maestro. The instruments used are barrels, vats and scythes, common tools of the earth that for the occasion are adequately beaten by the over 1000 bottari present and assume a new musical function. A millenary tradition at the base of which there is the typical music of Sant'Anthony, a rhythm performed by the people of Macerata with the aim to ward off evil; a music against the devil that is renewed year after year, which has never lost its role as a core of identity and popular cohesion, handed down and taught to children from father to son. (thanks to Vincenzo Capuano for his contribution)