A night unlike any other
It is the night between January 16 and 17. Walking for the first time in Varese, near Piazza della Motta, you are struck by very particular sensations: a very strong glow comes from the square, the light is warm and lively, as of a dancing fire, and even the smell is unmistakable: there is something burning! You stretch your ear, trying to figure out what is going on, the sounds you hear are festive: music, cheerful people, voices full of hope and affection. By now curiosity gets the better of you, you have to go to the square to see what's going on. Here, amidst the people gathered in celebration, a huge bonfire rises, which, guarded by firemen to avoid any trouble, pours its cheerful light on the buildings, on the festively decorated church of St. Anthony, and on all onlookers. St. Anthony, of course! Today is his feast day, and this is the oldest and most lived-in celebration in Varese, taking place right here in Piazza della Motta on this January night for more than 400 years.
Preparations and prayers
If you arrive a little bit earlier you can participate in the earlier stages of the event, when the skillfully constructed pyre still towers over the square. Little by little, the people who have gathered here approach it to stick little pieces of paper inside : messages with good intentions, wishes or requests for intercession for St. Anthony. Be careful, however: for them to come true, the thoughts must remain secret! The saint is also invoked to find lost objects and especially to find love through a short invocation, "Sant'Antoni dalla barba bianca famm' truà che'l che ma manca...."
The lighting of the pyre gives birth to the great purifying fire that sweeps away uncertainties and pain, welcomes hopes and wishes, and carries them up to the saint so that he may grant them. This is perhaps the most direct expression of the purifying, fertilizing and prosperity-bringing function that constitutes the cornerstone of this ancient and evocative rite that continues to be repeated over the years without losing its charm. And in the meantime, the warm light of the fire, with its bewitching power, envelops the spectators in a wide embrace, making them the protagonists of a spectacular scene.
The tradition originates from ancient Celtic cults in which fire and bonfires lit up the countryside to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and to wish fruitful and abundant harvests. According to legend, St. Anthony, who was a hermit and founder of Christian monasticism, descended into the underworld to steal fire, which he then gave to humans by burning a pyre. In past centuries, the ringing of bells on the afternoon of January 16 reminded the town of the distribution of bread to the poor, a gift from a wealthy family.
St. Anthony and the animals
St. Anthony Abbot, however, is also associated with animals, as evidenced by his classical iconography, which often sees him accompanied by a piglet, and this is an aspect that is not left out of Varese's celebration. On the morning of January 17, having cleaned up the remains of the bonfire, it is the turn of the animals, who are brought in to receive a blessing dedicated to them. Legend has it that on this very night dedicated to St. Anthony, the animals acquire extraordinary abilities: they would even come to speak! The more curious or skeptical should refrain from sneaking around a barn to see if this rumor is true or not: the legend itself states that this action is a source of misfortune; you might go mad with fear, or worse. When in doubt, better to party by the bonfire.
Of course, where there are animals, there are also children curious to see them, which is why the morning holds special moments for them as well. The most impressive is surely the balloon launch, when a small colorful flock of globes rises from the square and is carried away by the wind. But parents are not forgotten either, with rich stalls and food stands where the star, needless to say, is the piglet itself.
To make travel arrangements
Discover places and related research