From house to house, between rural districts and scattered houses, the teams of collectors of alms bring their devotional songs at dusk. They enter the homes, greet those who welcome them and narrate the stories of Saint Anthony the Abbot, the mighty protector of the stables and domestic animals, venerated by the farmers. The chimney fire warms each meeting; wine and biscuits help the wanderers to continue their rounds until late at night.
The ritual use of the collection of alms sung in honour of Saint Anthony the Abbot draws on some elements of his biography written by St Athanasius. Anthony was born in 251 at Koma, in Egypt, and died on 17th January 356 in Quolzoum, at the age of 105. He lived as a hermit in isolated places, eating only food that was given to him; his fight against the noisy demons took place with the help of song and prayer. He was also considered a powerful thaumaturge, able to heal people from serious diseases and to release them from demonic possession.
The order of the Antonines was officially founded in the West in 1297, but the activity of religious orders and congregations inspired by the holy Egyptian had already been deep-rooted for a long time: his followers were specialized in curing ergotism and helping the poor and worked in foundations and hospitals. They lived on the collection of alms and breeding of pigs – which were fed by the entire community – for the maintenance of the buildings and the therapies based on pork fat. Sick people and pigs were announced by bells, just like the musicians that go around collecting alms with a bell fixed to the top of a stick. Today the begging team recreates the image of the group of hermits following the holy saint, or that of the Antonines collecting alms to be destined to the poor and the sick. Songs and music are the tools that give power to the ritual: according to local beliefs they purify places from negative influences, as for Saint Anthony the Abbot they were the instruments used to defeat the devil.
In Arsita, at the foot of Monte Camicia, the ritual collection is particularly popular in the village and in the rural districts. The door-to-door collections are carried out in the days leading up to 17th January, to celebrate not only the saint but also the relationships with family members neighbours and friends, all the ties and social alliances that form the fabric of the community. Welcoming the teams on their way is an honour and refreshments are always offered, together with food to take away: sausages, pork loin, cheeses, biscuits and, sometimes, roosters, rabbits and other live animals.
The ethnomusicologist researcher Marco Magistrali has found evidence of a wide and deep-rooted practice of this ritual. In the Acquasanta district the alms collectors usually perform In honour of Saint Anthony , a song introduced in the 1950s by the diasillari (wandering alms collector singers) from the northern area of the province of Teramo. Like other songs, it is also known in the form of urazijionë (prayer), and it merges the Egyptian abbot and Saint Anthony of Padua into a single figure , thus increasing his powers and attributes by linking them to the history of a proud and greedy merchant, punished for his misbelief, in order to remind men and women of the obligation of humility and the power of the patron saint of animals.
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The collection of alms in Acquasanta
The Acquasanta group during door-to-door collection at a house in Contrada Vicenne.
Arsita (TE), January 1997.
Filming by Marco Magistrali,
Marco Magistrali Archive and Altofino Association.
Cultural Transmission and Preservation
The teams of musicians are made up of men and each of them is led by one of the oldest members , considered the link with the past even though he is no longer able to take part in the ritual; he is the point of permanent reference for the choices of the texts and melodies. Some teams know several different songs for the occasion, but the more united the group is, the more it identifies itself with a particular song. The history of the texts and melodies is marked by continuous elaborations: in the course of the twentieth century several songs for the collection of alms were introduced or reshaped. In honour of Saint Anthony is one of these, a testimony of the great flexibility and adaptability of the oral tradition, in which texts were sometimes written then later conveyed through oral trasmission.
The collection of alms in Arsita is still practiced in some districts such as Acquasanta, and the repertoires are also alive thanks to the work of promotion and consolidation that has been established over the last twenty years by the Altofino Association and by the related summer event “Valfino al Canto”, which many groups who carry out door-to-door collection during the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot also take part in.
The intensive research by Marco Magistrali, conducted in particular in the second half of the 1990s but constantly updated in the following years, has contributed to the revival of the phenomenon and has also made it possible to document and save from oblivion repertoires connected to the devotion to Saint Anthony the Abbot which later fell into disuse, such as the prayers from which many of the same stories sung in the collection of alms derive.