The History of the Popular Saints Festivals in Portugal

Written By Manuel Poças

Every year, during almost the entire month of June, Portugal gets filled with colors, light, and life.

It is a special time when we celebrate the Popular Saints (Santos Populares). Villages and cities, from north to south, turn into something even more special than usual. There is music, food, marches, dances, and happy people almost everywhere.

Santos Populares
Sardines on the grill at the Santos Populares, Photo by Becky Gillespie

It is a well known time of the year, both locally and internationally. We, the Portuguese, were born into this tradition. However, today, many new Portuguese residents and tourists only find about it after moving here or visiting, but they quickly fall in love with this tradition.

But what are these celebrations really about? Where do they come from?

The History of Santos Populares

First, it is important to consider that the main celebrations of Santos Populares happen on three specific dates, and each of those dates is connected to a Saint. The dates are June 13, 24, and 29, connected to Saint Anthony (Santo António), Saint John (São João), and Saint Peter (São Pedro), respectively.

Why these dates specifically? Well, Saint John was born on June 24th, and Saint Anthony and Saint Peter died on the 13th and the 29th. Even though June 13th and 29th are the days in which the Saints died, the festivities are clearly (anyone who has experienced it knows) to celebrate life. Considering Portuguese history and its religious foundations, there are plenty of cities and villages throughout the country with connections to these Saints.

Who Were the Popular Saints in Portugal?

Who were the Saints? Saint Anthony, the matchmaker, was born in Lisbon. He is the patron saint of the Portuguese capital. Going through the fastest canonization process ever done by the Catholic Church, he was called the “saint from the whole world” by Pope Leo XIII.

Saint John is John the Baptist, the godfather of Jesus, and Saint Peter is Peter the Apostle, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and the first Pope. This is why June 29th is also the day of the Pope. 

There is, however, another reason for celebrating on June 24th – the summer solstice. Before Saint John, June 24th was the day in which people celebrated nature, crops, and the sun—in short, life. Only later did the Catholic Church canonize the day and make it the day of Saint John, as the pagan dates and rituals went against its interests.

Thus, in Portugal, life is celebrated four times in June, with two on the same day. If one thinks about it, it does make sense. Life is reflected in the colors, music, and dances. There is so much life everywhere during both day and night. Even the typical plants used during the festivities are related to life. For example, basil, which you will see everywhere, is known as the plant of the summer solstice and has been associated with love since the ancient Greeks and the Romans.

Traditionally, on Santo António, the manjericos are sold with love poems to give to your loved one, Grumbler %-|, Flickr

The best places to be in and between these dates are Lisbon (up until the 13th), Porto and Braga (on the 24th), and Sintra and Évora (on the 29th). These are the days and the places in which there will be the most people. However, if you’re looking for a less crowded context and just want to give it a look, there are street parties with popular music, dances, sardines, bread, chorizo, beer, basil, etc., almost everywhere, from the second week of June onwards, until the 29th.

Enjoy the Popular Saints festival, one of the most joyous times of the year for the Portuguese people!

Even dogs can enjoy Santos Populares on the streets of Lisbon, Photo by Becky Gillespie
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