Blessing the Animals is one of the most engaging religious events in the calendar and takes place on January 17, the day of the death of Saint Anthony, one of the most interesting figures of the Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran Churches.
Suddenly the churches are full of pets meowing, barking and squawking, and in the church-yard you can find large animals such as horses, pigs and cows. What happens when the circus is in town? When strolling in many villages you will come across groups of horses while at night the streets come alive with bonfires and, perhaps, with handing out of polenta. Each village and town has its own peculiarities.
But where did all this start? And why is Saint Anthony often represented with a pig at his side?
The tradition began in the Middle Ages in Germany, where in every village a pig is bred to be given to the monks who run the ‘hospital of St. Anthony’, but the story has deeper roots.
Anthony was born in Egypt in 251 from a very rich family. He became an orphan when 20 years old and gave all his possessions to the poor to seek the essence of life in simplicity and solitude. He was responsible for the founding of the first ‘Monastery’ in Palestine and his life became an example to St. Benedict who, a few centuries later, took monasticism to a ‘professional’ level.
St. Anthony was a hermit, a worker, a vegetarian and a person who cured the sick, especially those with troublesome skin disorders that we now call ‘shingles’ or ‘fire of St Anthony’. In short, he was a religious ‘contemporary’ who drew lines of behavior that today does appear ‘innovative’.
The figure of Saint Anthony (not to be confused with the Portuguese Saint Anthony of Padua) is connected to fire and to animals. And these two are partly linked.
The fire is that of hell, where it says that Antonio was going to bring back some souls struggling with the demons, while animals are related to their role as healers and sources of ointments for shingles that is prepared from the fat of the pig.
The history of the celebration of St. Anthony and the blessing of the animals, however, started only in the eleventh century in France, where in 1088 the son of a rich man was cured of shingles and he rewarded the monks by founding a new order (the ‘Antonian’) and funding a ‘Hospitium’, a sort of pilgrim hospital. Since then the cult spread and slowly the celebrations began all over Europe.
Back to the present. Respect for the pig and other animals happens on this day dedicated to them (even if Saint Anthony is, on one hand the patron saint of animals, and on the other protector of butchers).
Some traditions say that on the night of St. Anthony animals talk and it is better that the farmers do not hear them talking. Others say that it is better to control them when they talk or they can go crazy.
One of the most significant celebrations is in Palestrina near Rome where three associations create folkloric parades that recall work of the past and end with blessing of the animals. The associations are: the ‘Cattle’ (cattle ranchers), the ‘Carrettieri’ (those who carry goods using carts pulled by animals) and the ‘Mulattieri’ (those who transported goods in inaccessible areas using mules).
The traditional celebrations in honor of St. Anthony in Sora are held on January 16th and 17th with the celebration of the Holy Mass at the end of which the traditional blessing of the animals is scheduled.
The feast of St. Anthony “Favaro” in Jenne has its roots in rural culture and is still maintained today with great popular participation. The corn sown in spring was harvested at the end of September. The Polenta made as it was once, and the fallone (pizza made with corn flour and water) are the typical dishes that can be enjoyed during the festivities.
In Doganella di Ninfa, a village of Cisterna di Latina, the patron of the fields and animals is honored with an event that is a source of pride for the inhabitants of the populous village, which straddles the towns of Sermoneta and Cisterna di Latina.
Here the corn, brought from the distant Americas, grows flourishing and, since the end of the Second World War, the festival has a touching religious moment, culminating in the Procession of the Patron in the countryside, escorted by numerous parishioners on their tractors, to witness the protection of the Saint on animals and the countryside.
In Monte Compatri the classic parade of allegorical floats colors the streets of the town in honor of St. Anthony. The products of the territory are the setting for an event that has entered the heart of the ‘monticiani’ (inhabitants of Monte Compatri), a particular festival that also marked the time between sowing and crops in agriculture.
The blessing of the animals, the educational farm and the workshops fill this day, after the classic walk enlivened by allegorical wagons, while preparing a bonfire for the evening of 17 January in Piazza Garibaldi, which warms up the tasting of polenta.
In Cerveteri, St. Anthony is a big party in the historic center with religious celebrations and then with many initiatives and fun for families and children.
In the afternoon there is the parade of carnival wagons and animals. Afterwards we find ourselves at the Cuppoletta di Sant’Antonio for the blessing of the animals. Finally in Piazza Santa Maria large party with masks, confetti, colors, entertainment and distribution of sandwiches, wine, and typical sweets of Carnival.
On January 17, traditionally the Church blesses the animals and the stalls placing them under the protection of the saint. The tradition derives from the fact that the order of the Antonians had obtained permission to raise pigs inside the inhabited centers, since the fat of these animals was used to anoint the sick struck by the fire of St. Anthony. The pigs were fed at the expense of the community and circulated freely in the village with a bell around their neck.
In Monterotondo, the Feast of St. Anthony is the most anticipated event of the year, the most popular event for all the monterotondese.
On 17 January the sacred image of the saint leaves the house of Emanuele Simeone to reach the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maddalena. The solemn Mass is celebrated and the blessing of the animals that precedes the parade takes place at the sound of the fanfare of the IV Regiment of the Carabinieri on horseback.
Among the many events that celebrate St. Anthony in the Province of Viterbo the Feast of St. Anthony in Sutri provides a long calendar of events that start before 17 January and end after 20, but the most intense days are always those of 16 and January 17, when the solemn procession, the parade of the cavalry and the blessing of the animals take place, together with other religious and civil events that always attract a large audience.
In Nepi the Feast of St. Anthony on January 17 starts the events of the Nepesino Carnival.
The opening of the famous machine fair precedes the lighting of the great “Focarone” and then the traditional “Beverino”, before ending with the solemn procession through the streets of the town.
Tuscania celebrates the feast of Saint Anthony with a solemn mass and procession, parade on horseback through the streets of the village and the blessing of animals, followed by the Frittella Festival, with tastings and guided visits to the main archaeological sites (Ara del Tufo Necropolis, National Etruscan Museum of Tuscania).
But perhaps the most exciting event is in Bagnaia, a village near Viterbo, where on the evening of January 16 a bonfire is lit in the square, ‘the focarone’ or ‘Sacred Fire of St Anthony‘. People gather in a procession through the village that ends with dancing by the fire. In the days before the festival they organize popular games and on the evening people are offered special local biscuits (cavalucci), accompanied by hot chocolate.