It’s with heavy hearts that we Portuguese are facing this festa (festival) season, or should I say this festa-less season this year. The time-honored tradition of the festa season is such an integral part of our Portuguese heritage that it’s disorienting to be going through the next few months without our festas. Participating in a festa is like visiting family. We know who we’ll see, what we’ll eat, where we’ll sit, what we’re likely to hear, and most importantly, what we come away within our hearts. It fills us in a way nothing else can do. While nothing can replace what we’re missing right now, my hope is that reminiscing of what we had, and hopefully will have again, helps us all get through this difficult year.
In Portugal and the Açores, June’s Festa de São João (Festival of St. John) and Festa do Santo António (St. Anthony) are the Olympics of festas! This centuries-old tradition combines its pagan beginnings with religious additions and contemporary twists to create fun and beautiful experiences. The experience is one perfect for vacationers and Portuguese residents alike. It won’t take much to see why these June festas are so popular; here are seven facts to get you started.
Ten Days of a Single Festa
The Sanjoaninas of Terceira, Açores, honors its patron saint, Sao Joao. There's no better example for why this island is called “the party island”than during Sanjoaninas. This annual event marks the highest tourism point in the season for Terceira, with many tourists vacationing for the festa and many using it as an anchor for returning home to visit relatives and friends. This celebration dates back to the 16th century and showcases Terceira’s heritage, culture, and way of life. The Sanjoaninas are a vast combination of religious celebrations and secular traditions, which take several days of religious, cultural, recreational, ethnographic, and sports activities, attracting many thousands in a way that can only be experienced to be understood fully. The celebration happens over the course of ten days!
Sanjoaninas Are a Work of Art
Sadly, this festa has been canceled for the year. The theme for 2020 was “Angra nas Asas de um Sonho” (Angra On the Wings of a Dream). Angra do Heroismo, the island’s world heritage city always hosts the spectacular celebration that’s beautifully coordinated with a different theme chosen for every year. Per tradition, the celebration opens with the “Queen” parade, a highlight-filled with pageantry, floats, and music. For the ten days of the celebration, there are more parades, concerts, bullfighting (in arenas and Terceira-style bullfighting on a rope), food stalls, theatrical shows, fireworks and sporting events ending with a parade of popular dances. Each year, a different theme is chosen, making this festa an exciting display of shows and performances drawing marching bands and dance groups from the United States and Portugal.
Sanjoaninas offers so much more than what you’d expect in a festa. They provide a sense that the entire island is choreographed to support this festa. Each freguesia (parish) prepares to attend the festa so that many of their shops and restaurants close during this event. Residents have family and friends visiting from other parts of the world, so activities are centered around attending the festa. People vacationing on other Açores islands plan day trips to attend parts of the festa. People who attend regularly know they can expect an extravaganza that only slows down for sleep.
Porto’s Festa de São João’s Plastic Hammers
In Porto, Portugal, this festa takes place on June 23rd. While this date is chosen to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the celebration itself has secular roots that coordinate with the summer solstice. Because Festa de São João (festival of St. John) has its beginnings based on pagan rituals, some practices that attendees use may appear odd but soon make sense. The day gets started with friends and family gathering for meals together. Then all of a sudden, it’s hammer time! It’s safe to say that the practice of hitting friends, family, and strangers with plastic hammers is something unique to this festa. The act, some say originally done with wilted leeks or garlic flowers, is done as a show of interest in one that may become a beloved.
Porto’s Festa de São João Celebrates With Fire
Festa de São João in Porto has had many reinventions to reflect the norms of those celebrating. At one time, it was popular to have bonfires lit in the streets with revelers daring each other to jump over them. This was to provide a show of courage as well as to symbolize the belief that fire had the ability to provide good health, a healthy marriage, and happiness. While these the St John's bonfires still occur, most happen on the beach.
Porto’s Festa de São João Celebrates with Beauty and Joy
While many of the festivities that are part of this festa happen with planning, some of the magic of the festa is because it is a spontaneous flow. Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, is transformed for this love-themed festa. Houses are draped with bunting and streets are prepared for concerts. Traditional St. John's balloons, made of multi-colored paper, are strung along all the main roads. Larger balloons are also released, painting the sky with hundreds of lights. Churches are also decorated with altars in honor of this popular saint. In the streets you'll find the traditional ‘cascatas’ (waterfalls), a type of miniature model of the former daily life and traditions of Porto, with clay figures of people doing different jobs and activities from yesteryears. People eat barbequed sardines, drink, talk, and dance throughout the night and into the early hours of the next day. Following midnight’s spectacular fireworks, the celebration flows towards restaurants and eventually towards the beach of Praia dos Ingleses. And it is there that love-struck and happy revelers enjoy the rest of the celebration swimming, visiting, dozing and for some, nursing hangovers. Later in the morning, there is a mass dedicated to Sao Joao and the famous wooden boat competition, the Barcos Rebelos, on the Douro River.
Lisbon's Festa de Santo Antonio is Love-centric
The Santo Antonio (St. Anthony) festa is known by its tradition of the ‘Noivas de Santo Antonio’, (the Brides of Saint Anthony). Hundreds of Lisbon couples use the celebration to get married in the company of thousands of people.
Those getting married aren’t the only ones focused on love. Because St. Anthony is known as the patron of lost objects as well as good luck, especially romantic luck, the festa has a tradition practiced as a result of that belief with the tradition of the majerico. Majerico is a type of small-leafed, fragrant basil. During the festa, each potted basil plant carries a piece of paper or a brightly colored carnation with four verses or a love message. The majerico symbolizes love when given to someone and the recipient of the gifted plant is then supposed to take care of it as carefully as the love given with it.
Don’t Forget the Sardines!
Because St. Anthony is cherished in Portugal, it stands to reason that everything about him is symbolized during the festa in his honor. Sardines are known as the food of the poor and since St. Anthony took a vow of poverty, sardines are a mainstay at the festa given in his honor. It is said that the scent of basil is rivaled by the smell of grilled sardines. In fact, this festa is often referred to as “The Sardine Festival”.
The tradition of our festas, no matter where they’re celebrated, is a very beloved part of our lives. With each passing generation, these become more important for maintaining what we love about our heritage and used for giving us a way to pass on our traditions to subsequent generations. From those that travel to be with family during festas to those whose livelihood is impacted by the lack of this year's festa generated income, the loss is monumental. It’s our hope that paying tribute to the festas here, and to others that we’ll cover later in the summer, we provide a way to warm the hearts of our readers.
From your friends at Rooster Camisa, haja saude e muito amor (may there be wellness and much love)
Written by Margaret Resendes Peek