“Ó noite de Santo António
Ó Lisboa de encantar de alcachofras a florir
De foguetes a estoirar
Enquanto os bairros cantarem
Enquanto houver arraiais
Enquanto houver Santo António
Lisboa não morre mais
Lisboa é sempre a namoradeira
Tantos derrices que já até fazem fileira
Não digas sim, não me digas não
Amar é destino, cantar é condão
Uma cantiga, uma aguarela
Um cravo aberto debruçado da janela
Lisboa linda do meu bairro antigo
Dá-me o teu bracinho, vem bailar comigo”
This is a bit of Amália Rodrigues’ song “Noite de Santo António”, a tribute song about her hometown, Lisbon, where she sings about Santo António and her love for Lisbon. Our beloved Fado singer mentions a bit of everything that happens during these festivities - from the famous arraiais to the incredible marchas populares!
Today we will focus only on the Festas de Lisboa. Let’s dive in on what Santo António’s festivities are all about!
History of Santo António Festivities in Lisbon
Santo António was a Catholic saint born in Lisbon in 1195. He later joined the Fransciscan Order and became renowned for his devotion to the poor and his ability to perform extraordinary acts of kindness.
The tradition of celebrating Santo António in Lisbon began as a religious observance, tracing back to the 18th century. On the night of June 12th, the eve of Santo António's day, devotees would gather in Lisbon's churches to honor the saint through prayers and processions. Over time, the festivities expanded to encompass a wider range of cultural and community-oriented activities.
In the 20th century, Santo António’s festivities gradually evolved into a more inclusive and exuberant celebration that transcended the purely religious aspect. The festivities shifted to the streets, engaging the entire community and creating a vibrant atmosphere that celebrated the local heritage.
The neighborhood associations, known as "casas de bairro," played a significant role in organizing the festivities. Each neighborhood took pride in decorating its streets with colorful garlands, paper lanterns, and other traditional adornments. This friendly competition between neighborhoods gave rise to a visual spectacle, transforming Lisbon into a vibrant and festive city.
It has now become an integral part of Lisbon's cultural identity, as these festivities showcase the city's history, traditions, highlighting the resilience and strong bond of the Lisbon community.
Street decorations & music
One of the most captivating aspects of the Santos Populares in Lisbon is the elaborate street decorations that transform Lisbon's neighborhoods into a riot of color and joy. The narrow streets are adorned with colorful paper streamers, paper lanterns, and intricately crafted garlands made of artificial flowers. The city becomes a visual spectacle, with each neighborhood competing to create the most dazzling and creative display.
Music plays a vital role in the Santos Populares. Traditional Portuguese music - like songs from the Marchas populares and Pimba fills the air as people gather in the streets and squares. Further, you'll be able to hear other spontaneous folk songs to the rhythmic sound of guitars, mandolins, and accordions. It's common to find impromptu sing-alongs and spontaneous dancing.
Popular sayings (‘Quadras’) & the manjericão
During the Santos Populares, you'll also encounter popular sayings associated with the saints. One famous saying is "Santos populares, manjericão nos altares" (Popular saints, basil on the altars).
Manjericão, or basil, is considered a symbol of good luck and is often associated with these celebrations. People buy pots of basil, and it is customary to place them on windowsills and altars as a sign of devotion.
The manjericão is always accompanied by the “quadras” or short popular sayings. Here are some examples:
“No Santo António
E no S. João
Como as sardinhas
E deixo o pão.”
“Santo António, Santo António
Que tens tu de especial?
Só sei que na tua festa
Há alegria no arraial.”
“Lisboa, és meu amor,
Quero contigo dançar
Cantar cheia de fulgor
A tradição popular.”
The main events
- Marchas populares
One of the highlights of the Santos Populares are the Marchas Populares, a parade of neighborhood groups showcasing their artistic talents. Participants show off traditional costumes and perform choreographed dances to traditional music. Each group represents a specific neighborhood, with their performance reflecting local culture, history, and customs.
The Marchas Populares take place on the night of June 12th, the eve of Santo António’s day. Each neighborhood in Lisbon prepares its own marcha, a group performance that reflects the distinctive characteristics, history, and traditions of the neighborhood. The preparation for the marchas starts months in advance, with rehearsals, costume design, and choreography, all fueled by a strong sense of neighborhood pride.
Each marcha competes for recognition and honors, aiming to impress the audience and the judges with their creativity, synchronization, and overall performance.
- Casamentos de Santo António
Another unique event during the Santos Populares is the Casamentos de Santo António, also known as the Mass Weddings of Santo António. Santo António was not just the patron of Lisbon, but also the patron of Lovers, so it’s no wonder that the weddings take place during these festivities.
The event takes place in Lisbon's Sé Cathedral, a magnificent setting that adds a touch of grandeur and solemnity to the occasion. The couples are selected through an application process, and their participation in the mass weddings is sponsored by the city of Lisbon.
The Casamentos de Santo António are characterized by a strong sense of community. Local businesses and volunteers contribute to the celebration by providing wedding attire, hair styling, makeup, transportation, and even reception venues for the newlyweds and their guests. The generosity and support from the community demonstrate the spirit of solidarity and care that defines the Santos Populares.
The Arraiais are festive street parties that take place throughout the city in various neighborhoods during the Santos Populares.
Here you will hear plenty of our cheesy yet beloved Pimba music and plenty of other popular Portuguese music.
When it comes to finding the best and most popular neighborhoods to experience Lisbon's Santo António festivities, look no further than Alfama, Castelo, Mouraria, Graça, Bica, Madragoa, and Bairro Alto.
However, you can find many many more throughout the various narrow streets of Lisbon. Just follow your senses and feel the lovely odor of the sardine barbecues and the wonderful music.
What to eat
The Santos Populares provide a feast for the senses, and it wouldn't be complete without savoring the traditional culinary delights that are part of the festivities. Some must-try dishes include:
- Sardines on bread (sardinhas assadas): Grilled sardines are a quintessential part of the Santos Populares. These flavorful fish are typically served on a slice of crusty bread, accompanied by roasted peppers and a sprinkle of olive oil.
- Caldo Verde: This hearty cabbage soup is a Portuguese favorite. Made with potatoes, kale, and slices of chorizo, it provides comfort and warmth during the festive nights.
- Bifanas: These tasty pork sandwiches, usually served with mustard and sometimes spicy piri-piri sauce, are a popular street food choice during the Santos Populares.
- Farturas: These deep-fried dough pastries, sprinkled with sugar and often accompanied by chocolate or caramel sauce, are a sweet indulgence that can be found at the Arraiais.
- Caracóis: Caracóis (snails) is a beloved Portuguese snack that is most commonly enjoyed during the Summer throughout Portugal. Cooked with garlic, spices, and sometimes served with a tangy sauce, they are a unique culinary experience.
- Pão com chouriço: This snack consists of freshly baked bread filled with succulent chouriço sausage, offering a delicious combination of flavors.
The Santos Populares in Lisbon are an exuberant celebration that captivates locals and visitors alike. From the vibrant street decorations to the lively music, this annual festival immerses you in the rich cultural heritage of Portugal. The Marchas populares, Casamentos de Santo António, and Arraiais provide opportunities to witness age-old traditions, while indulging in the delectable culinary delights adds a flavorful touch to the festivities.
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