Just One Of Those Things: Sant Antoni and Sa Pobla

17-01-2010JOAN LLADO

Sant Antoni is a big deal in the north of the island. The deal is biggest of all in Sa Pobla, but in Artà, Muro and to a lesser extent in both Alcudia and Pollensa, the fiesta is also a pretty significant deal and one which is looked forward to each year with great anticipation. As I mention elsewhere in today’s paper, the fiesta originated in Sa Pobla in 1365, the pretext having been that the Sant Antoni d’Uialfàs church was built in the Vila Real Sapobla de Vialfás (aka Uialfàs) in 1357.   
In 1300, when Sa Pobla was named as a “royal town”, it was, in effect, a new town. A Sapobla de Vialfás had existed before by what is the oratory in Crestatx, not far from present-day Sa Pobla and the site of the veneration of the martyred Santa Margalida (the Vialfás part of the name and its variants refers to water meadows; Albufera, one presumes). It would appear that the new site offered greater potential for development; hence, the inhabitants of Crestatx relocated a couple of kilometres up the road. It took 57 years for them to get a new church, and Sant Antoni lent his name to it. In the history of Sa Pobla it is said that it wasn’t therefore strange that the fiesta should subsequently be celebrated, but there is no obvious explanation as to why Sa Pobla was selected to have a Sant Antoni church and to therefore be the focus of attention for this saint whose endeavours had made him massively popular among the Catalans.
Jaume II, who was the real driving force behind the importing of Sant Antoni, wanted every village in Majorca to show its devotion to the ancient Egyptian monk, but when it came to naming churches after him, Sa Pobla got preferential treatment. As far as I am aware, there was no other Sant Antoni Abad church in Majorca (though I might be wrong), so why was Sa Pobla chosen? It has been suggested that Jaume II had singled Sa Pobla out for the Sant Antoni treatment, but if he did, then evidence to back this theory up is pretty thin on the ground. Indeed, the first time that Sant Antoni became a possible name as a parish (a future one at that) was in 1315. Jaume II had been dead for four years by then. It was his successor, Sanç I (Sancho), who seemingly gave the green light to the name when he arbitrated in the matter of the splitting of Sa Pobla off as its own parish from the San Miquel church in Campanet.  
So the naming of the church and the consequent fiesta seems to have just been one of those things and a stroke of luck for Sa Pobla, which has been revelling in being the centre of Sant Antoni attention ever since, and there are various reasons why, over the centuries, it came to have a fiesta as we now know it and which is copied (in lesser ways) by other towns. One reason, which doesn’t have anything to do with Sant Antoni specifically, is the lighting of fires, to symbolise the rebirth of the sun and, in more practical terms, as a way of fertilising land with the ashes. A second reason also doesn’t have anything to do with the old monk. He was, after all, not known as Anthony the Anchorite (hermit to you and me) and the founder of reclusive monasticism for nothing. Over the years, the fiesta became a mix of the profane as well as the religious; Antoni would be turning in his grave.
The other reasons are directly attributed to the Antoni narrative. Prolific patron saint that he was - skin diseases, amputees, butchers, basket weavers, gravediggers (and other hermits) - it was and is his protection of animals that helped secure him a leading role in the annual fiestas’ merry-go-round; there are, of course, blessings of animals on 17 January. This said though, animal blessings carried only so much interest, and it was the story of what happened to Antoni while he was being hermitic in a cave in the desert that really helped to make the fiesta catch fire - pretty much literally. Antoni was bedevilled by devils and their supernatural temptations. They appeared before him or, more likely, were hallucinations (it might be interesting to know what types of herb or fungi were available in the particular part of desert he preferred). It was the devils or demons, whose presence at the fiesta is documented from before the nineteenth century, who gave the occasion its X factor.
To come up to more recent times, it wasn’t until 1958 that the demons were given a central role in the fiesta and accompanied the image of Sant Antoni, and then, in 1966, came a major breakthrough. On 21 February of that year, the Sant Antoni fiesta was declared as being of “touristic interest”. This was a resolution from the tourism ministry in Madrid and was set out in the Official Bulletin. Of course, it is questionable as to quite how much “touristic interest” has ever been paid to the fiesta, but this is a separate matter for discussion and centres on an apparent inability to promote winter fiestas adequately. Nevertheless, with official approval from the State, Sant Antoni assumed greater significance and importance, while Sa Pobla was confirmed as the home of the celebration.
Of other participants in the fiesta, these are modern creations. The “caparrot” big heads came along in the 1950s and their junior versions in 1983. The giants followed in 1984, but they are not a specifically Sant Antoni phenomenon. As with other giants, they turn up to other fiestas and indeed their premiere was at the summer Sant Jaume fiesta in 1984. The fire-breathing “Grif” dragon was first unveiled in 1998.   
This, therefore, is something of a history of Sant Antoni. But while other towns, such as Muro and Pollensa, have borrowed the traditions of the fiesta, there is one event over Sant Antoni that is not a Sa Pobla tradition and is very much a Pollensa one only: the climbing of the pine tree on the night of the 17th. As with the obscurity which surrounds the reasons why Sa Pobla acquired Sant Antoni, so there is obscurity as to why a pine tree is climbed. No one seems to know. It was taking place in the nineteenth century, but how it came into being, well, maybe it’s just one of those things.

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