Did you know June is a month of popular festivities in Portugal? That’s right! Santos Populares, or popular saints, are celebrated throughout the whole month! It is a time of great joy, merrymaking, and community spirit, as people come together to honor their beloved saints and enjoy the beginning of the warm summer weather.
These festivities have their highlights on June 12th, celebrating Saint Anthony, in Lisbon; June 24th for Saint John, in Porto, and June 29th for Saint Peter in Sintra and several other cities. Each saint has their own unique traditions, but all involve lively street parties known as “arraiais”, with colorful decorations, and traditional food and drink. But perhaps the most important aspect of Santos Populares is the sense of community and togetherness that it fosters.
Throughout the month, people come together to dance, sing, eat, and celebrate in the streets! The joy of the celebrations is infectious, and visitors to Portugal during Santos Populares are sure to be swept up in the festive spirit. So, join us to discover Portugal’s vibrant June celebration!
How did Santos Populares start?
As with many popular festivities throughout the world, it is believed that the Santos Populares festivities are related to the pagan festivals that celebrated the summer solstice, which marked the beginning of the summer season associated with fertility, crops, and abundance, and was later assimilated by the Catholic Church.
The Santos Populares celebrations, in particular, were inspired by the “Maias” – a celebration dedicated to the month of May, where chants were sung in the streets. Since these festivities incorporated dancing and other pagan elements that the church disapproved of, King João I of Portugal issued an order in the 14th century prohibiting these celebrations.
Despite the ban, the people's love of singing and dancing could not be suppressed, and they soon found another occasion to celebrate! So, the ancient dances of “Maias” were transposed to the month of June and incorporated into the celebrations of Popular Saints, such as Saint Anthony, Saint John, and Saint Peter. The result was the Santos Populares festivities of today that we know and love, with lively music, colorful costumes, and joyous dancing through the streets.
Parades of Santo António in Lisbon
Santo António or Saint Anthony was born in Lisbon and became such a beloved saint that the day dedicated to him is a holiday that translates into a huge celebration all over the city! But it is in the city center that the most special event takes place: the parades of Santo António.
On the night before Saint Anthony’s Day, June 12th, Avenida da Liberdade, one of Lisbon’s main avenues, transforms itself into a huge stage to host a bustling parade that is, in fact, a competition. Each of Lisbon’s neighborhoods puts on its own parade complete with bright colorful costumes and lively music, each one hoping to be that year’s winner. Each parade has a theme inspired by Portuguese culture and is led by the Marcha queen and king, who are chosen to represent their community in the festivities.
The origins of these parades go back to the middle of the 18th century, when the French started the habit of dancing to military marches, with torches lit in hand, celebrating the storming of the Bastille. Portugal quickly caught on to it, only the Portuguese replaced the torches with paper balloons, which were already popular across the country.
But the real highlight of the Marchas de Santo António is the energy and enthusiasm of the participants. From the young children twirling their colorful umbrellas to the seasoned dancers showing off their choreographies, everyone is swept up in their joyous spirit. With its upbeat rhythm and catchy lyrics, it's sure to get your feet tapping and your hips swaying in no time.
Paper balloons and sky lanterns of São João in Porto
Porto’s vibrant and authentic people know how to throw a party like no other. The city bursts with color and life from the beginning of June as the Santos Populares festivities take over the streets. But it's on the night of June 23rd that the true magic happens, as thousands of joyful souls from all over Portugal and beyond come to Porto to celebrate São João.
June 24th is a holiday in Porto, celebrating the birth of Saint John the Baptist. However, it's the night before when the festivities actually take place. The city hums with anticipation as the shortest night of the year approaches, and the air buzzes with contagious energy. Stalls selling sizzling sardines and steaming green broth line the streets, along with traditional trinkets like basil, leek, and plastic hammers. But it's the paper balloons of São João that steal the show, adorning the main arteries of the city with their bright colors, intricate designs, and joyful spirit.
As the night approaches midnight, friends and families gather to fill sky lanterns with hot air, watching in awe as they rise gracefully into the sky above the majestic Douro River. This magical sight is a tradition that has enchanted Porto for centuries, and it is just one of the many wonders that make the São João festival such a special and unforgettable celebration.
But linger for a few more minutes! As the clock strikes twelve, the sky will be enlightened with a dazzling display of fireworks that will last for about 15 minutes. And what a scene it is! The iconic Luís I bridge takes center stage in this breathtaking spectacle, its silhouette a striking contrast against the vivid explosions of light that paint the night sky.
São Pedro’s Bonfires
As the month goes by, it is time to celebrate São Pedro or Saint Peter’s Day on June 29th. This is a holiday in many Portuguese cities, including Sintra, and it is still a part of the whole month celebrations of Santos Populares in Lisbon and Porto, maintaining the lively atmosphere of the “arraiais”, filling the streets with music and joy.
At the heart of this vibrant celebration lies the bonfire - a symbol of the sun, light, and the warmth of the summer solstice, as befitting ancient pagan beliefs. In days gone by, villagers would gather around the central square of their town, where the towering flames of the bonfire would illuminate the night sky, celebrating the saint with dances around the fire. Amidst the dancing and revelry, young men would dare to leap over the fiery embers, impressing their female counterparts with their daring feats of courage.
For those seeking to adhere to the tradition of the São Pedro Bonfires, there is a specific protocol to be followed. Couples must take each other by the hand and leap over the flames together, thereby signifying their shared bond and commitment to one another!
Symbols: from sardines to basil pots
Get ready to have your senses and traditions awakened at the Santos Populares festivities! Among all the traditions, there are some symbols that endure for centuries and are a spotlight of these celebrations.
First up, we have the irresistible grilled sardines. These delicious fish are a staple of Portuguese cuisine, but they hit a whole new level of flavor during the Santos Populares. Just imagine the smell of those juicy sardines sizzling on the grill, paired with roasted peppers. Experts say that they should be savored on top of a thick slice of bread that absorbs their natural fat. It's a feast for the senses that will make your mouth water!
If you're feeling romantic, the basil pot is the symbol for you. It is also known as the "herb of the lovers" because, according to tradition, the boys gave a small clay vase with basil to their girlfriends, by the time of Saint Anthony, the Holy matchmaker. In ancient days offering basil meant a commitment as strong as a marriage proposal. The girl should take care of the plant for a year until it was replaced on the following Saint Anthony’s Day. The traditional basil pot is accompanied by popular and amusing courts almost always about love.
But if you're looking for some rowdy fun, head over to São João in Porto. You won't be able to escape getting playfully smacked on the head with a leek or a plastic hammer. Yes, you read that right! The leek used to be a way for boys to initiate contact with girls, but these days the plastic hammer has taken over. With its bright colors and loud noise, the plastic hammer represents the city's awakening to the joys of summer after a long, dark winter. And don't worry, getting hit on the head is actually considered a sign of good luck and blessing!
The “cascatas” are one of the main attractions of São João in Porto and one of the oldest traditions of the city. Just like the nativity scene on the winter solstice, the “cascatas” should be displayed on the summer solstice. It is a unique tradition of São João do Porto made with the figures of the Saints and their symbols. According to historians, the first “cascatas” appeared in the 19th century and the tradition remains. Each one is different and tells a unique story, featuring everything from the iconic Sé and Torre dos Clérigos to the mystical Douro River and its traditional Rabelos boats. These "cascatas" truly showcase the fusion of tradition and creativity that makes the Santos Populares festivities so special.
How to embrace the festivities
Now you know that visiting Portugal in June means street parties in celebration of the Saints: decorations, music and food stalls selling traditional Portuguese dishes. So, how to embrace it? We selected a few tips to help you get the most fun!
• Attend a street party: The heart of the Santos Populares celebrations is the street party, or “arraial”. These parties take place in neighborhoods across Lisbon and Porto, and also in the center of smaller cities like Braga or Sintra. The “arraial” features lots of music and dancing, and, of course, food. You can join in the fun by buying a ticket or simply showing up and mingling with the locals.
• Watch the parade: In Lisbon, the “Marchas de Santo António” parade is on the night of June 12th. You can watch it standing for free or buy a ticket for a seat. The colorful outfits, the popular music, and the choreographed dancing of the parade are a great way to immerse yourself in the festivities.
• Try the traditional food: The food is a big part of Santos Populares, and you should definitely try some of the traditional dishes like grilled sardines, roasted peppers, and “caldo verde” soup. These are often accompanied with beer, but if you're feeling adventurous, you can also try some of the local drinks like sangria or “Ginjinha”, a cherry liqueur.
• Make friends: The street parties and events are open to everyone, and locals and visitors alike are encouraged to join in the fun! The atmosphere is lively and welcoming. You'll often see people dancing together, sharing food and drinks, and simply enjoying each other's company. Whether you're traveling alone or with friends, the Santos Populares festivities provide a unique opportunity to connect and experience the warmth and hospitality of the Portuguese people. So, don't be shy! Embrace the festivities and join in the fun!
• Book it: If you plan to visit Portugal during the Santos Populares festivities it's a good idea to book your accommodation and activities in advance, as many hotels will be fully booked. Additionally, if you plan to attend any of the official events or parties, such as the Santo António parade, it's important to purchase tickets in advance. You can count on us to help you! You'll have a better chance of securing your preferred accommodation and activities, and be able to ensure a smooth and amusing Santos Populares experience!
Are you ready for some fun?
Yes, spending summer on a beach or by the pool, sipping cocktails, or working on your tan is great, but frolicking in the Portuguese Santos Populares celebrations is even better! From the colorful decorations and traditional food to the lively street parties and dances, this month-long festival is a time to come together and celebrate life and the traditions that make Portugal such a special place. So, get ready for some joy by joining these vibrant and colorful festivities. We promise you will have so much fun you may need another vacation!