of us wishing to know the secret of how to live to a ripe old age
might like to study the long life of an Egyptian saint, St Anthony
the Great, known in Spain as San Antonio Abad or Saint Anthony Abbot.
He lived to well over a hundred and his feast day falls on the 17th
January. But then again we might not; according to the stories handed
down to us, this religious recluse spent much of his life in the
most inhospitable environments, deprived of human company and all
creature comforts, battling with temptation and devilish torments.
we might diagnose such a person as in need of psychiatric care,
but Anthony's example of adopting an ascetic lifestyle became a
template for the Christian monastic way of life. Born in the middle
of the third century, as a young man just out of adolescence he
took Christ's words to heart and decided to sell all his possessions
and give the proceeds to the poor. His sister, who was in his charge,
was sent to a nunnery, and he then went off and lived in the desert
for several years, acquired a number of followers, and had to resist
the blandishments of various demons, armed only with the power of
prayer, fasting and penance.
it is said that he shut himself away in an abandoned Roman fort
for twenty years. Another story finds him curing some little wild
piglets of their blindness, for which kindness their mother became
his protector. She is frequently depicted alongside him in paintings
is this story which helps to explain his role as patron saint of
domesticated animals and the amusing ritual to be witnessed in Madrid
on his day, when people flock to St Anthony's church to have their
pets blessed by the priest. Long queues form as each one is given
a blessing: 'By the intercession of Saint Anthony, may the Lord
deliver this animal from all evil'.
queue forms for the bread rolls called panecillos de San Antón,
this in memory of the story of a raven which brought bread in its
beak to sustain Saint Anthony and another saintly hermit, Paul,
out in the desert. The bread is made to a secret recipe so that
it stays soft for a considerable time, which is important as tradition
says you must put it away for a year with a coin on the day of San
Antón. The following year you eat the bread and replace it
is another, more sinister connection between the saint and bread,
namely the disease known in the middle ages as 'Saint Anthony's
fire', now called ergotism. You catch this by eating bread made
with flour contaminated by a certain fungus, Claviceps purpurea.
The symptoms are extremely unpleasant: amongst other things you
start to experience severe burning sensations and hallucinations,
and if the disease goes untreated the poor circulation that it causes
brings on gangrene, and your fingers, toes, even arms and legs start
to drop off. The monks of Saint Anthony became famous for their
care of sufferers, with their soothing balms and skill as amputators.
stories of fire and animals and demons are behind the weird assortment
of celebrations of San Antón all over Spain. In many places,
Maro here in the Axarquía, for example, or in villages in
the Alpujarras, on the night of the 16th bonfires will be lit around
which people will sing and eat. These bonfires can be huge - the
one in Canals in Valencia can reach up to 25 metres high - and there
may be feats of derring-do involved, such as riding through the
flames on horseback, a speciality of the Luminarias fiesta in the
village of San Bartolomé de Pinares in Ávila province.
These fires may be a reference to Saint Anthony's fire, or they
may simply have had a role in insuring against disease in farm animals.
St Anthony was busy following his path to spritual perfection in
Egypt, another future saint, Sebastian, whose feast is on 20th January,
was, according to legend, working as an officer in the imperial
bodyguard in Rome. His boss was the emperor Diocletian, a well
known persecutor of Christians, so when it was discovered that Sebastian
was secretly converting soldiers to his faith, Diocletian ordered
him to be executed by arrows. He was left for dead, but being an
athletic young man, he managed to survive and with the help of Saint
Irene, recovered his health. He persisted in defying the emperor
and was executed a second time in 288AD, being cudgelled to death.
symbolism of his first execution, that of man at the mercy of a
shower of deadly arrows, meant that Sebastian became popular as
the protector of those with the plague, a disease which seemed to
choose its victims in as unpredictable and haphazard a way as a
shower of arrows would.
of his body supposedly saved the city of Palma in Mallorca and San
Sebastián in the the Basque country from outbreaks of plague
in the sixteenth century. His feast day is understandably important
in these places. In San Sebastián he's remembered with La
Tamborrada, when marching companies of brass bands and drummers
and barrel beaters parade noisily through the streets. The marchers
may be dressed as soldiers or chefs. The soldiers supposedly represent
the English forces that freed the city from the French during the
War of Independence, while the chefs remind us of the groups' connections
with the local gastronomic societies.
the most bizarre commemoration of Sebastian's death takes place
in the village of Piornal, in the cherry-growing valleys of Extremadura.
Here El Jarramplas appears, a figure wearing a scary mask with enormous
horns and an outfit decorated with coloured ribbons. The costume
needs to be well padded, for the townspeople pelt him mercilessly
with turnips as he wanders the streets, beating his drum.
to home in Andalucía, Sebastian is the patron saint of Huelva,
Lanjarón and Frigiliana. There they used to celebrate the
town fair at this time, but because the middle of winter is not
really the best time for a feria it was moved to 13th June, the
feast of Saint Anthony of Padua. They do have a procession, however,
when with fireworks to help them on their way, the images of three
saints get an outing: San Antonio de Padua, San Antonio Abad and
can listen to the episode below.