The begging, the banquet and the sacred representation
Begging, or collections of alms, moving from house to house asking for small donations, was the introduction to the celebration of St. Anthony. The purpose of begging was to collect food and money for the feast, and the refusal to donate was seen as an insult towards the saint himself and the community. Everything collected would then be used to prepare the banquet in honor of the saint. It is told that in many rural villages the meal began in the evening and ended at the dawn of January 17, in a way providing a temporary break to the hard life and work in the countryside. The banquet, originated from the liberality, in its turn became an occasion for charity: pots and cauldrons of food were given in alms to the poor searching for a meal.
Image: “St. Anthony coated bearing the Tau”, ca. 1460/70, by anonymous German/Austrian artist.
Source: By Anonymous (Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg, G 21 I) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In many regions of Italy the collection was made by groups of young men. One of them was dressed like St. Anthony, so described: "a person dressed in a gown, with a beard of oakum, with bourdon and bell, followed by singers and players ..." (the bell was another symbol of the saint).
Thus, the begging became a masquerade with different characters and players: for example in Abruzzo a group of masked men, including the saint, a crowd of devils, a young girl or the temptress, and an angel, moved from house to house. This practice gave rise to a pantomime, the theatrical folk representation, in which episodes from the life of the saint were narrated.
In several villages in Italy there is still a tradition of religious drama illustrating the life of Anthony. It is a popular theater meant to represent the scenes of "The Temptations of St. Anthony", by songs and poems. The plot includes the Anthony’s choice of the hermitage in the wilderness, the temptations by the devils and the tempting maid. At the end of the drama, an angel arrives to solve the situation and to help Anthony in getting rid of the demons, also thanks to a sword (a symbol taken from Archangel Michael), given by the angel to Anthony. The performance is followed by the great popular banquet.
In many areas the sacred representation has become a competition with an award for the best reenactment: one of the best examples is the sacred drama taking place every year at Villa San Giovanni of Rosciano, Abruzzo.
In Spain, in the villages like Forcall (Castellón) and Mirambel (Teruel), the “Santantona” (a popular play about St Anthony) is staged, representing the temptations the saint had to overcome in the desert, showing many popular local characters and the devils, and ending with Anthony's victory.
The tau-shaped rod and the bell
Anthony is often depicted with a rod in the shape of Tau.
In Egypt, where Anthony lived, this letter was considered a sign of the future, health and power, and also in Hebrew it is the last letter of the alphabet, a sign of destiny. The Tau thus symbolized the cross and the crutch used by Anthony when he was old, and was adopted as emblem by the Order of St. Anthony since 1160. It appeared in the coat of arms of abbots, in the capitals, on the vaults of the churches and on the bell towers, furthermore, it was sewn on the dresses of the sick and even earmarked on the back of the pigs.
Another attribute of the saint is the bell, often hanging from his rod.
The bell was used by the Antonian Order in the Middle Ages and was often tied to the neck of the Antonian pigs in order to distinguish them. The popular tradition resumed the use of bells during the begging and to hang them on the festive pig, or often on the ears of the animals.
The feast of St. Anthony overlapped ancient pagan rural festivals and assumed their symbols, just like the bell representing fertility and abundance, as can be seen today in many folk traditions. The bell for its shape in general is related to the female cults of the Great Mother, and therefore in the folk tradition stimulates woman's fertility. In addition, the sound of the bells has always had an defensive power, as protection from evil, hence its connection to Anthony.