Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 San Antonio and San Sebastian



Those 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.

Nowadays 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.

Subsequently 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 and sculpture.
blessing of pets in MadridIt 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'.

Another 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 with fresh.

There 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.

LuminariaThe 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.

While 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 San Sebastianwell 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.

The 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.

Relics 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.

Tamborrada    El Jarramplas

Perhaps 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.

Closer 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 San Sebastián.      

You can listen to the episode below.