Novoli’s fòcara: purification for the new year
The fòcara (or fòcura) in Novoli, Lecce, is one of the “fire festivals” held in Salento on the eve of the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot (January 17th), when huge bonfires are lit in the squares or crossroads of town, and people watch them burn in the darkness of night.
“Since early December,” expert Alfredo Cattabiani explains, “people gather wood and take it to the main square, building a cone-shaped woodpile. According to tradition, the bonfire must be as tall as the cathedral’s façade. On its top there are an orange tree branch […], some wheat spikes, and finally a flag with an image of the saint.”
“On the 16th, in the late afternoon, a procession with torches begins. All the local confraternities take part, carrying large church candles called ‘sugghi’. As soon as the statue of Saint Anthony comes out of the church, people make their offerings – mostly in the form of gold watches. When the procession goes back inside, the fireworks display starts as the fòcura is lit.”
“Around the bonfire, people eat and chat. It is probably a syncretic trace of pre-Christian holidays: rituals held to celebrate the beginning of the new year and the ‘new sun’ during the ‘feriae sementinae’, when fields and villages were purified through ‘lustratio’ ceremonies and oxen and heifers were covered in flower garlands and allowed to rest. As Alfonso Di Nola states, ‘there is a wide range of rituals in which winter bonfires are lit for Saint Anthony, because they merge the purification function attributed to fire and the apotropaic effects against witches, the winter flu, the dead, and all illnesses’.”
“At the end, the people of Novoli take home a few firebrands or some ashes, which they consider precious” (translated from A. Cattabiani, “Lunario”, Mondadori, Milan 1994).