The bonfires of Sant'Antonio
In several towns and villages in Sardinia, the toasts and welcoming dances accompanying the New Year are followed by a series of fascinating folk and religious events giving visitors the opportunity of living unique experiences throughout the winter season. One after the other, until the early days of springtime, there are events full of meaning such as the Bonfires of Sant'Antonio, Carnival parades and the Holy Rites of Easter Week.
January’s leading event is the “Bonfire Festival”. Deeply felt throughout the island, it is rich in mythical and ritual aspects and it is a time for renewing communal ties.
A blend of the sacred and the profane, the glow of these great bonfires lights up the night between 16 and 17 January, bringing together the communities of several towns and villages in their squares to renew the ancient ancestral rite dedicated to Sant'Antoni de su Fogu, patron saint of the shepherds and farmers, who died at more than one hundred years of age, so they say, on 17 January. Tradition has it that it was S. Antonio who braved hell fire to steal a burning spark, hiding it in his hollow stick, and making a gift of it to the icy earth and the men who lived there, as yet unaware of its blessings.
The wood is piled with great care until it forms a tall pyramid known as sas tuvas, sas frascas, sos focos, su fogarone, su romasinu or su foghidoni, according to the locality and type of wood chosen. Lentisk, strawberry tree, laurel and rosemary fill the night air with their scents.
At dusk, the inhabitants gather in the square to watch the lighting of the fire. The faithful, in a rite which is a mix of sacred and profane, walk round the fire thrice clockwise and thrice in an anti-clockwise direction, uttering prayers round the purifying fire blessed by their parish priest. And thus begins the old pagan rite (probably of Greek origin – think of the legend of Prometheus) dedicated to fire, a “sacred” element of the universe, associated with the colour of blood and the heat of the body, hence with life itself.
The festivities last for several days, with traditional songs and dances, excellent wine and the traditional pastries made of sapa - grape must, all marking the start of Carnival and hence of “sa prima essia” (the first outing) of the island’s traditional masked characters.
“Balla chi commo benit carrasecare” - “dance, because Carnival is coming”, this is the invitation of the Mamuthones and Issohadores of Mamoiada, of the Boes and Merdules of Ottana and still other masked figures who throng through the streets of the Sardinian villages.