By Zach Frolich
If you like animals, there is no entertainment quite like seeing hundreds of pets, dogs, cats, horses, and even iguanas, snakes, and roosters, all converging in one square to be sprinkled with holy water! January 17th, is yet another important Saint’s Day in Spain, that of San Antonio Abad, patron saint of animals.
Naturally there’s an important back-story to Antonio Abad, also known as Anthony the Great. He was a Catholic (Coptic) monk born in 3rd-century AD Egypt who was known for spreading monasticism, but is now most famous for being the first to practice the asceticism of going into the wilderness to renew one’s faith through nature. This is how he became associated with animals. (Odd side note: He is also the Saint to whom you appeal to get rid of skin diseases, i.e. “St. Anthony’s fire”!)
On a day that celebrates animals in Spain, the horse is the central protagonist. For the week or so leading up to his saint’s day, roughly January 11th through 17th, there are numerous equestrian exhibitions and cabalgatas, or cavalcades of horses passing through the streets all over Spain (especially in coastal towns and cities and on the islands).
Of all animals, for Spaniards the horse was one of the most important. Through these street parades horse owners use San Antonio Abad’s saint’s day to draw attention to the historical importance of the horse and their continued pride in caring for them. Around Barcelona, for example, there is Els Tres Tombs of Igualada (Barcelona), a horse parade that has been going on since at least 1822.
These horse parades s can be fun, especially watching them stop traffic all over the city. But the celebrations around San Antonio Abad have an even more interesting twist. In Valencia, for example, the Parroquia de San Antonio Abad (Calle Sagunto, 188, 46009 Valencia) invites pet owners to bring their pets there on the morning of the 17th so that priests might bless them with holy water. (I’ve read online that the churches and parishes affiliated with San Antonio Abad in the Barcelona will also bless pets.)
Moreover, in typical Valencian fashion, fire has been incorporated into the festivities. Many towns throughout Valencia hold a bonfire the evening before the Saint’s Day. The small town of Canals, south of Valencia, boasts the biggest bonfire in the world for this festive day. In the city of Valencia, you can see one around 9:00p.m. on the 16th held not far from the Saint Anthony Abad Parish.
If you’re a pet owner in or near Valencia, I recommend you check it out! Even if you don’t have a pet.
Zach Frohlich, originally from Austin, Texas, has been traveling between Spain and the U.S. for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last couple of years. He is a historian by training and married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights and background on Spain at: http://nothemingwaysspain.blogspot.com/
Two black and white photos on Zach’s post are courtesy of ‘Hola Valencia City Blog.’ http://www.holavalencia.net/2010/01/18/san-antonio-pics-video-2/