•17 Jan: Día de San Antonio de Abad (‘Feast of Saint Anthony the Great or the Abbot’) – Nationwide. A feast day commemorating the death of an Egyptian Christian, Saint Anthony the Abbot (c. 251–356 AD), the founder of the Christian monasticism.
Cult: Veneration of the Saint
According to The Life of Anthony, written by Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 295-373), the saint gave his inheritance to the poor in order to live an ascetic life of a hermit in the desert of northern Egypt, pursuing his spiritual enlightenment in the company of animals. He is considered a patron saint of farmers and a protector of the animal kingdom as well as those inflicted with skin diseases. The popularity of his cult that reached its height in the Middle Ages was due to the Order of Hospitallers of Saint Anthony (founded first as a lay congregation by Gaston of Valloire near Grenoble in France in c. 1095, which later on became a monastic order in 1218). The institution, which spread rapidly through Europe, looked after people suffering from the common medieval disease, known as St. Anthony’s fire (or ergotism). The community kept animals in good health by hanging bells around their necks (to find them at night and to drive away evil spirits).
A miniature (above) – painted by Master of Saint Veronica, Cologne, around 1400–1410, MS. Ludwig (83.MS.49.2.recto), J. Paul Getty Museum – shows Saint Anthony the Abbot, dressed in a black habit of the order (with the Greek letter tau in blue known as Saint Anthony’s cross), blessing people and animals that surround him. On the right, several men carry crutches indicating that the saint was called on to prevent and cure disease in both people and animals.
Ritual: The Blessing of Animals
An iguana stands on her owner’s hat outside La Merced Catholic church during the Blessing of the Animals in Oaxaca, Mexico / © Chico Sanchez @ Alamy (ID BM07JJ)
An integral part of the Feast of Saint Anthony in Mexico is a ritual of the blessing of animals. Domestic pets, caged and even farm animals – dressed in special outfits and often decorated with flowers, ribbons and bows in their hair – are taken to a churchyard to receive their annual blessing: sprinkled with holy water by a priest while reading a special animal prayer for their good health and fertility.
A boy holds his sheep by a leash as he attends the Blessing of the Animals celebration in Oaxaca, Mexico / © Chico Sanchez @ Alamy (ID BKKH87)
In the Old World, the animal blessing on the Feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot is intertwined with the pre-Christian tradition. The long period between the winter solstice (around 21 Dec) and spring equinox (around 20 March) was full of festivities that involved the rites of purification of animals, fields and people. Under the guise of Catholic feast days, local customs and rituals were tied to those ancient rites of fecundity and regeneration.
It seems likely that Franciscan monks introduced this tradition to Mexico during the Spanish colonial period. Local Mexicans adapted the tradition of venerating this saint, dedicating their farm work in his honour and asking him to bless their animals. Today, it is held in grateful recognition of the service given to the owners by the animal kingdom.
- NTDTV. “Mexican Animals Get Traditional Blessing on Patron Saint Day.” YouTube. 19 Jan 2012. Link [Accessed 23 Jun 2018].