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).
But perhaps the most exciting event is in Bagnaia, 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.