Santos Populares: Midsummer Festivals in Portugal

June is the month of Santos Populares, popular saints’ celebrations across Portugal. See how religious and secular elements combine for some pretty spectacular parties.

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festivals in Portugal
The historical mix of Catholic veneration of saints and pagan celebration of the summer solstice reaches its apex across Europe in the month of June.  In Portugal, festas juninas, June festivals, often referred to as Midsummer in other countries, take place in most Portuguese municipalities.  While each city or region has its own specific traditions in terms of which saint it honors – often someone with ties to the area, but not always – and what the festivities entail, they are broadly similar in three main aspects: parades, food, and copious amounts of alcohol.
The two largest events are dedicated to Santo António in greater Lisbon and São João in greater Porto.  The word são is an abbreviation for santo, and both mean “saint” in English; when santo comes before a consonant, as in the name João, it is abbreviated to são.  Hence Santo António and São João mean St. Anthony and St. John, respectively.  
Countless other religious processions and festivals devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus, called romarias, also take place around this time, and throughout the year as well.  Church and state are nominally separated in Portugal: municipalities sponsor much of the festivities for the Santos Populares, including some epic parades, which in Lisbon can approach Carnival-esque proportions, and there are many other religious holidays throughout the year when government offices close. The feast day of Santo António is observed on June 13th (in Lisbon but not Porto) and São João on June 24th (in Porto but not Lisbon).  These are official municipal holidays, but I guess nobody’s complaining about a day off of work.
Santo Antonio Lisbon
Santo António parade in Lisbon. Image source: Público
Santo Antonio Cascais
Santo António parade in Cascais I ran into once when I didn’t even realize it was Santo António because I am a champion event planner.
In Lisbon, the evening of the 12th – the véspera de Santo António, St. Anthony’s Eve – and in Porto, the evening of the 23rd – véspera de São João, St. John’s Eve –  is the main event, when the parades and big block parties are held in neighborhoods all over the city.  The 13th and the 24th are reserved for the ressaca, the hangover, and sometimes a quiet dinner with family, which may or may not help with the hangover.  Wherever you’ll be traveling in Portugal, though, just Google the local municipal calendar to see when its festas will be held.    
St. Anthony was a medieval monk and mystic from Lisbon who claimed that Jesus Christ appeared to him, and he’s often depicted with the child Jesus.  He later became the patron saint of Lisbon as well as the Italian city of Padua, and he’s referred to either as St. Anthony of Lisbon (Santo António de Lisboa) or St. Anthony of Padua.  His feast day coincides with the day of his death. In Lisbon, St. Anthony had a reputation as a casamenteiro, a matchmaker – so did Father Gonzalo of Amarante, a Portuguese city that honors him with penis-shaped baked goods – which serves as a testament to the multi-tasking skills of a celibate man who spent most of his time locked in a monastery. One of the Santo António highlights comes on the 12th with the casamentos de Santo António, weddings of St. Anthony.  Hundreds of couples selected from a huge pool of applicants participate in an intimate group wedding ceremony, just as St. Anthony probably imagined.  You can check out a YouTube recap of the 2024 edition here
São João in Porto marks the birthday of St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin born six months before him, according to the Gospel of Luke.  St. John doesn’t have the same reputation as St. Anthony as the romance kind of saint – his claim to fame was baptizing Jesus – but since Midsummer festivals often have pagan roots in the rites of spring and celebrations of fertility, São João keeps that tradition alive.  Historically, at the festivities on the véspera de São João, people would take the flower of a leek and bop it playfully over the heads of passersby.  The flower is shaped in a ball, and because literally anything can bring testicles to mind if you’re creative enough, the logic goes something like this: aromatic vegetable used in a lot of Portuguese soups → flower → testicles → pregnancy. 
Leek flowers 1
Leek flowers
Of course, nowadays the flowers have been replaced with plastic in the form of the martelinho de São João, the St. John’s hammer. In the 1970s, some enterprising college students started using toy hammers to celebrate the end of the school year and brought them along later for São João.  Afterwards, there was no looking back, and the flowers fell out of use.  The soft, accordion-like head of the hammers makes a whistling sound when it comes into contact with something hard, so the background music of the night broadcasts in thousands of hammer whistles throughout the city.  Young and old alike partake in giving each other good-natured marteladas.
Sao Joao poster 1
Vintage São João poster in my office, complete with reflection of the adjacent wall because I am a master photographer
martelinho de Sao Joao 1
Example of a martelinho de São João
Although the festas juninas across Portugal maintain their specific regional traditions, they generally unite on the dinner menu: a sardinhada, or meal of grilled sardines – I rhapsodize about grilled sardines here – with caldo verde soup made from potatoes, cabbage, and sausage, and farturas for dessert (fried dough in powdered sugar), along with free-flowing wine and beer.  Municipalities and/or areas with a critical mass of traditional Portuguese restaurants (I talk more about those here) will typically set up a bunch of picnic tables outdoors near the grills to accommodate the huge crowds attending the parties full of music, and sometimes dancers in folkloric dress. 
farturas
Food carts selling farturas and churros are a staple at Santos Populares and other events during the summer
If you happen to catch one of the Santos Populares festivals when you visit Portugal, you may notice that much of the decoration includes images of basil plants.  If you brush your hand across a manjerico, the earthy smell of fresh basil will linger on your palm.  The exact origin story of the manjerico appearances during the Santos Populares is unknown but in the past may have held religious connotations or been gifted between lovers as a reminder of their affections.  
manjerico
Natural manjerico
manjerico decorations
Electric manjerico
On a personal note, São João has become something of a bittersweet celebration for me as a widow.  My husband, Nuno, and I used to attend the festivities regularly, often planning our summer vacations, when we still lived in the United States, around São João, since Nuno was from Porto.  All the fun of São João serves as a reminder of other times. 
Nuno Sao Joao
Nuno with junior at a long ago São João
Me Sao Joao
Me feeding junior while enjoying some delicious caldo verde. Probably didn’t see that one coming, did you?
But a different way to think about it, and how I try to conceive of São João these days, lies in taking the celebration not as a look backward to the past, but a look forward to the future.  Part of the festivities on the véspera de São João involves launching paper balloons with a small votive candle inside, which gives the balloon heat and therefore lift.  Before the advent of telecommunications, the balloons were probably a means to let people know that the party had started, but today they are a nostalgic way to light up the night sky.  Some people make a wish when they launch a balloon – in part, hoping it will stay aloft; they frequently get stuck in trees – and you can only make wishes if you believe in the future, what might still lay in store for you.  It’s all part of the cycle of life at the heart of these traditional celebrations of the beginning of summer, fertility, and, for some, the Great Beyond.
lighting balloon
Lighting balloons on São João. The perfect mix of alcohol, paper, and open flame.
balloon stuck
Guess this wish didn’t come true. Sad trombone music.
Lest this post wind up on too saccharine a note, allow me to caution you to only launch ballons in Porto between the municipally sanctioned schedule of 9:45 PM on June 23rd and 1:00 AM on June 24th, when the Porto airport grounds flights.  We don’t want the cycle of life sending a plane into a tailspin, for god’s sake.
And don’t forget to watch the fireworks.  It will help you sneak in a little magic.
fireworks
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