Every year on 16 and 17 January Varese celebrates the traditional Festival of St Anthony by lighting a bonfire in front of the church of Sant’Antonio in Piazza della Motta.
The festival originated as a religious ceremony in honour of St Anthony the Abbot, an Egyptian hermit, patron saint of domestic animals and anyone working with fire. The legend narrates that St Anthony went to hell to try and wrest sinners’ souls from the devil, while his pig ran amok among the demons. This is why Italian call shingles “St Anthony’s fire”, a disease that “burns” the skin, and which the Hermit allegedly was able to cure.
During the day on 16 January two church services are celebrated, then in the evening a bonfire is lit in the square in front of the church, Piazza della Motta. The men and women present write their wishes for love on pieces of paper and throw them on the bonfire, invoking St Anthony. This tradition goes back to the time when the men of the town who had emigrated to Germany or Switzerland would come back home, and the women would ask St Anthony to find them a husband, repeating a charm which went like this: “Saint Anthony, saint of the pig/ find a man to marry me /he may be small or he may be big/But with bandy legs he can never be!” (In the local dialect: Sant’Antonio del purscèl/ fam truva un om che sia bel/damel picul damel grand/ ma damel mai con stort i gamb).
The morning of 17 January, after mass, all the animals are blessed, and the children release balloons containing more wishes into the air.
The people of Varese are very attached to this festival, and over two thousand take part in it every year. As well as the religious ceremonies and the bonfire, there are also food stalls displaying and selling local specialities.