The popular saints are Saint Anthony, Saint John and Saint Peter, celebrated on the 13th, 24th and 29th of June, respectively. These saints are adored by the Portuguese people even by the least devout.
The celebrations begin on the eve of each day, with lively street parties known as "arraiais".
During the festivities, the streets are decorated with colourful flags and paper flowers, and the smell of grilled sardines and other typical Portuguese dishes fills the air. It is also customary to drink "sangria" or a traditional beer. The hot days of June call out for a refreshing drink.
On the feast day, there are religious processions that take place in the main town squares, where people gather to pay homage to the saints. The processions are often led by a statue of the saint, followed by devotees carrying candles and other offerings.
The first saint to join in the festivities is Saint Anthony. Lisbon has another charm during this time, people come out into the streets and on every street corner you can find various arraiais (festivals) where you’ll be greeted the smell of grilled sardines and traditional Portuguese music.
The most awaited night is the 12th June, the "alfacinhas" march to Avenida da Liberdade to see the "Popular Marches" parade, where Lisbon neighbourhoods parade with colourful clothes and walk and dance down the avenue to the sound of traditional music. This parade is full of colour, traditional balloons, decorated arches and good humour.
This date is so important in the capital that each neighbourhood starts the preparations as early as January. The population gets together to prepare the choreographies and the costumes they wear during the parade. These rehearsals also serve to unite the neighbours and maintain the tradition that has lasted for decades. It is a competition taken very seriously, but also very fun and lively, even for spectators.
Santo António is known as the matchmaker saint, so this day is chosen by many couples as the day to celebrate their wedding. In 1958 the tradition of the brides of Santo António began. For the first time, the marriage of several couples took place in the patron saint's church. The aim of this initiative was to enable couples with greater financial difficulties to get married, and this translation continues to the present day.
The Popular Saints are a time of great joy and celebration in Portugal and are deeply rooted in the country's cultural identity. They bring people together to celebrate their traditions and enjoy the company of friends and family.
When the festivities slow down in Lisbon, Porto’s celebrations ramp up for São João. Just like Santo António in Lisbon, in Porto, São João is one of the most important times for locals.
One of the most important traditions of São João is the lighting of bonfires. The bonfires are usually lit on the night of 23rd to 24th of June and the population gets together to jump the bonfires. An ancient tradition in which jumping the bonfire was believed to bring good luck, health and fertilization, hence the saying that one should jump the bonfire holding hands with lovers, to bless a future family.
On the night of the 23rd of June the sky of Porto becomes more illuminated, several colourful hot air balloons are launched - an unforgettable experience for those who take part.
But we can't talk about São João, without mentioning the Leek and the plastic hammer. If you pass by one of the streets of Porto on the 23rd don't be alarmed if you get hit on the head with a plastic hammer. This is a funny tradition that people like to take part in. In the middle of the 19th century, when the tradition started, people used to pick leeks on the streets and when they got home they would put them behind the door, believing that their family would be protected all year round against evil spirits.
The story of the little hammers, that has gained many followers, was born 60 years ago, during a trip abroad when the owner of a toy factory, inspired by a salt shaker he saw abroad, decided to create a bellows-shaped toy, with a handle and a whistle. That same year, before Queima das Fitas, a group of students went to the factory and asked for the noisiest toy. The entrepreneur, proud of his new creation, suggested the plastic hammer. This toy was so successful that the following year the shopkeepers ordered it for São João and thus, in a joke, a tradition was born.
These little hammers became one of the biggest symbols of São João and help to identify the festival, both by the Portuguese and by foreigners. The characteristic noise and the fact that it is a good excuse to "break the ice" with strangers make this toy the star of the party.
In summary, the celebration of São João in Portugal is a big popular party that takes place all over the country but is especially celebrated in the northern region. It is a joyful celebration, lively and eagerly awaited by locals.
Finally, and just before the end of the month, comes Saint Peter's, which is celebrated mainly in the coastal regions of the country as he is the patron saint of fishermen. The boats are decorated with flowers and banners in homage to Saint Peter so that he may protect them at sea. Several wreaths of flowers are also thrown into the sea to honour fishermen who have lost their lives.
As in other celebrations, there is no lack of popular music, sardines, traditional clothes and typical dances.
Another common symbol of all the Saints are the folk songs and the basil plants. This is the official plant of this time of year. The tradition dates back decades, when lovers offered their girlfriends an earthenware pot with basil as a symbol of commitment. The girlfriend who received the basil had to take care of it all year round until the feast of the following year, so that together with the basil the love would remain.
But beware, taking care of this plant is not an easy task, because the basil is a very sensitive plant, it is even said that it withers just by being smelt directly.
The Popular Saints celebrations are spread all over the country and even those who do not like big gatherings take part in them, even if just at home, with family and friends, with a barbecue and Portuguese music.
Finally, it is important to highlight that the celebrations of the Popular Saints in Portugal are a moment of joy and fraternisation between people, which shows a strong sense of community and union. The festivities are an important part of Portuguese culture. Those who do not know our country have here a fantastic opportunity to sample some of our traditions and customs and feel the heart and soul of the Portuguese people.
Author: Cláudia Ferreira
Cláudia Ferreira, who holds a degree in Communication Sciences from Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa, is currently serving as the assistant director and commercial representative at Casaiberia.