18 January 2011

Día de San Antonio - Patron Saint of Pets

We were watching the news last night when we saw a very strange thing.  Hundreds of people had dressed up their pooches and pussycats in fancy costumes and were lining up to get a priest to sprinkle holy water over them.  Then in today's paper I saw an alarming photo of someone riding a horse into a bonfire.


It turns out that 17 January is the Feast Day for San Antonio Abate, the patron saint of domestic pets.  People throughout Spain take their pampered pets to church for "The Blessing of the Animals" - cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, pigs, ferrets, donkeys, even goldfish.   Following a ritual sprinkling, the faithful are given panecillos del Santo, lucky buns made from a secret recipe which is supposed to keep them fresh for a year.

Like most Catholic ceremonies this has pre-Christian roots; it dates back to an ancient Roman fertility rite to honour the gods Cerere Terra, when a pregnant animal would be sacrificed, and beasts of burden wore garlands and were given a day off work.  St Anthony the Great, a.k.a. Anthony the Abbot, was an Egyptian Christian monk who spent most of his life fasting in the desert and being tempted by the Devil.  He apparently had a soft spot for pigs, and is often depicted with one on a lead, as in the statue in Alcalá's Parroquia de San Jorge (see picture).   He was appointed Patron Saint of domestic animals in the Middle Ages.

Many Spanish cities have special events on this day.  In Barcelona there is the Cabalgata dels Tres Tombs, a grand procession of decorated animals and carriages through the town.   In Castellar del Santiago (Ciudad Real) there is a cockerel auction, while in Trigueros (Huelva) legs of ham, bread, money and other objects are thrown at a statue of the Saint as he is paraded through the streets.  In some places the celebrations involve bonfires, and in the Luminarias de San Bartolomé de Pinares (Ávila) riders force their horses into the flames in the belief that this will cleanse the village of disease and ensure its prosperity in the year ahead.

The reason I hadn't been aware of it before, I suspect, is that in Alcalá de los Gazules there are very few pampered pets; here, animals have to earn their keep. Dogs are for hunting or guarding property, cats are for catching mice, and the chicas who carry Yorkies or chihuahuas round in their handbags probably aren't the town's most dedicated churchgoers.  Our own extremely pampered pet can think herself lucky she lives in an atheist household.


Tumbit.com said...

...The one day of the year when a farmer will cease beating his Donkey or Podenco and take it church to get blessed. Only in Spain !

Claire Lloyd said...

Actually Tumbit, I´ve never seen anyone beating a donkey here, or a dog. There is undoubtedly some appalling treatment of animals, but I think this is more through lack of awareness rather than deliberate cruelty. Of course it might be different where you are though.