You might think Portugal had celebrated enough on Friday with Portugal Day. But Lisbonites (alfacinhas, as they are known) aren’t quite done with the festivities. June is a great month for visiting Portugal because it is in June that we celebrate the santos populares, the people’s saints, and there’s so much going on. The capital is no exception! For a few weeks, the entire city of Lisbon is alive and kicking with the Festas de Lisboa – the Lisbon Parties, which puts St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US to shame…
One of the main events this month is the Festas de Santo António (St. Anthony’s parties). What is it about St. Anthony that makes Lisbonites celebrate so much? Santo António was born in Lisbon in 1195, he’s the patron saint of marrying couples. His official day is June 13th, the day of his death.
Streets are lined in brightly-colored paper flowers and balloons; in the evenings, there are bands playing and dance groups entertaining crowds; food stands fill the streets with churros and farturas, red wine, more grilled sardines than you’ve ever seen in your life and other typical Portuguese foods, such as my favorite soup, caldo verde. On the night of Saint Anthony, there is a parade, where different neighborhoods compete against each other to have the best display. A fireworks display follows the end of the parade. If you happen to be in town, you get to experience a really unique facet of Lisbon’s culture – you may also not get much sleep, as these street parties continue well into the early hours of the morning!
Traditionally, men will buy a manjerico, a sweet basil plant, for their sweethearts. Each manjerico comes with a paper carnation and a short poem (a quadra), which can be romantic, funny, or both. The sweet basil is a fragrant aromatic herb which is best smelled by rubbing your hand on the leaves and then smelling your hand afterward. It’s a very addictive smell! You’ll see manjericos everywhere in Lisbon in June. As my wedding was a couple of weeks before Santo António, I had to place some on our table for extra luck!
Probably the most curious event of the entire Saint Anthony parties is a mass wedding, a tradition which started in 1958. It was an initiative to help couples who wanted to marry but didn’t have the financial means to do so. Although this tradition was interrupted for several years after the 1974 revolution, it eventually came back. The Saint Anthony couples (noivos de Santo António) get married in the Lisbon Cathedral and their wedding is paid for by the Lisbon municipality and other private sponsors. This year, 16 couples will get married in the widely-watched televized ceremony, and their reception will be held at the Estufa Fria.
Between weddings, street parties, parades, food and live entertainment, it’s evident that Portuguese people know how to celebrate. Sorry Saint Patrick, your celebrations may have more beer, but Saint Anthony’s have more love.
If you’re interested in learning more about Saint Anthony, there is a museum dedicated to him, right near the cathedral. For more information, see the Museu Antoniano.