In an earlier blog, I introduced Luiza Frazão, Glastonbury-trained Priestess of Avalon, co-founder of the Portuguese Goddess Conference, and author of the books A Deusa do Jardim das Hespérides and A Deusa Celta de Portugal, which explore Portugal’s Celtic Goddess heritage.
In the past months, Luiza has been generous enough to introduce me to some local folk festivals that celebrate key moments in the wheel of the solar and agricultural year. With their deep Earth-based roots, these festivals have endured under an overlay of Catholic observance and are integrated into the calendar of saints’ feast days in the liturgical year. Underlying established religious observance, there is an unbroken stream of syncretized folk religion and folk practices that connect the people to the heartbeat of the numinous Earth on which they live.
Unfortunately, since I moved to the Oeste region of Portugal in July 2020, the Covid pandemic has seen many of the local festas temporarily canceled, but as 98% of the local population is now triple-vaccinated, we’re seeing a slow resurgence of these gatherings.
Usseira, the farming and fruit-growing village where I live, has an annual festival of Santa Luzia, held between December 7 to 13 in most normal years. During the height of Covid, the festivities were canceled, but in December 2021 the festa was celebrated, although it was a much smaller, more low-key affair than before the pandemic.
We gathered at night in front of our small chapel dedicated to Santa Luzia, our village’s patron saint. An enormous bonfire was lit and people gathered around to share grilled meat and sardines, prepared on site. Much local wine was passed around. Nobody officially charged money for anything. You just donated what seemed fair.
Gathering in the light and warmth of the enormous bonfire with my Portuguese neighbors and trying my best to communicate with my limited Portuguese was a challenge, but the universal language we all spoke was happiness and goodwill. The bonfire blazing on the dark winter night seemed symbolic of a sense of community life returning after the constrictions of lockdown and social isolation.
The root of Luzia’s name is luz, which means light. Across Europe, from Scandinavia to Sicily, Saint Lucia is honored as a bringer of light to the midwinter darkness. Luiza Frazão explained that before the Gregorian calendar reform altered the old Julian calendar, Luzia’s feast fell directly upon the Winter Solstice. John Donne’s 1627 poem “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucia’s Day, being the shortest day” bears witness to this fact—the Gregorian calendar wasn’t adopted in Britain until the 18th century!
Meanwhile, back in Portugal, Luiza and I met again around one month later, on January 17 for the Festa of Santo Antão, traditionally celebrated in an old hermit’s chapel on a hill outside the medieval town of Óbidos. This festa is traditionally a very large gathering, attracting thousands of people from far and wide in what the newspaper Caldas Gazeta describes as a pilgrimage for Christians and Pagans.
This festa, which is celebrated in the daylight, comes around the time of Imbolc in the old Julian calendar, Luiza explained. It celebrates the steadily increasing daylight and the promise of spring and new growth. It is also a feast focused on healing and blessing the animals that are so important in rural communities.
Santo Antão was a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert. He is the patron saint and protector of animals. In the old days, farmers would bring their livestock to be blessed at this festa. But nowadays people are offered special blessed ribbons to take home to their animals. Traditionally a Mass is held in the chapel and there’s a market on the hilltop. However, in January 2022, the festa was officially canceled due to a spike in Covid infections. But that didn’t stop people hiking up the hill in small groups.
Our small group shared a picnic of the traditional grilled sausage along with halloumi, since I’m vegetarian. We lit candles outside the locked chapel and then raced down to Óbidos to get our blessed ribbons from the Church of Saint Peter before they closed at 5pm. As we left the hilltop, other people were hiking up with their picnic baskets and wine bottles. In previous years, the celebrations continued until early the following morning.
When we reached the church in Óbidos, five minutes before closing, I took two ribbons for my horses in exchange for a small donation. Back at home, I tied the pink ribbons in the horses’ manes, but the beasts had other ideas and rolled in the mud. So I rescued the ribbons and tied them to the field shelter instead.
As the Spring Equinox approaches, I look forward to discovering more local festas.
Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.