A small guide to Christmas traditions in Portugal

Hello Zazzlers and friends!

Every year many of my foreign friends and readers ask me on Facebook mainly about the Christmas tradition in Portugal. There must be hundreds of texts talking about it but here is one more. I will write about the way the Portuguese celebrate Christmas today. I will refer to general trends as several hypotheses are possible. The way Christmas is celebrated varies from family to family and from place to place. Some follow more traditional ways, while others celebrate with greater freedom. 

As you all may know, Catholicism is the main religion in Portugal. The tradition of gift-giving is strong but Christmas is still considered a very religious occasion and many celebrate it according to Christian religious beliefs. It's the celebration of family. It's a time when families come together. It's a time of comfort.

When I was a child we had our family meeting, the traditional food of the season was on the table and there was the exchange of gifts - left in the shoe by Baby Jesus! Yes, we did not put the socks up to get the Christmas presents neither believe that Santa was the one who brings them. Growing up, neither my sister nor I had many gifts under the tree, but there was always the one you wanted the most. 

In the 70s plastic Christmas trees weren't very popular yet but my mother already had one, quite small, dark green. This one did not replace a natural one that my father would fetch from the forest. Everyone would cut a pine tree in the woods, as round as possible. There was no talk of ecological awareness. The smell of pine trees and pumpkin cakes baking in the oven, kneaded by my grandmother, are still the aromas of Christmas to this day. We did not place any crib under the Christmas tree, either.

We also went to mass but never at night - the Missa do Galo, as it is called. I never really liked going to church, even as a child. Kissing the baby Jesus was a tradition in the city where I grew up, Braga. The statue was on a red velvet cushion and the priest was offering it to people who lined up. My mother thought I would like it but on the contrary, I didn't like doing that at all and I still remember the priest cleaning the little boy's head with the handkerchief with a certain disgust.

How do the Portuguese celebrate Christmas today?

1. It was St. Francis of Assis in the 13th Century who had the idea to re-create the stable where Jesus was born. Most of us display a nativity scene or crib (it's called Presepio) in the house. We get the traditional figurines - Mary and Joseph, the Three wise men, an ox, a donkey, and baby Jesus! Also the Three Wise men and the shepherds. Many leave the scene empty until baby Jesus is born. The Three Wise Men are also sometimes placed away from the manger and are moved as the days go by, thus approaching the Child.

Today it's usual to make cribs with all kinds of materials. My nephew made one with scraps of wood and pines. You'll find cribs often by the side of the road on roundabouts or live nativity scenes in certain local festivities. The town of São Paio de Oleiros entered the Guinness Book of Records for hosting the largest moving nativity scene in the world and a man from Santa Maria da Feira has a record for the most mechanical figures in a nativity scene.

Cribs can be very simple or very complicated with lots and lots of figurines! In Portugal, there was a strong nativity scene tradition and the ones sculpted by artist Machado de Castro are world-famous and considered art. From my childhood in the north, I also remember popular nativity scenes displayed in churches with hundreds of clay small figures painted with vivid colors and real moss. Some even had motion!

2. D. Fernando II decided to have a Christmas tree for his children in the palace and hand out gifts himself dressed as Saint Nicholas. This is the first reference to a Christmas tree in Portugal and it dates back to the 19th century. He brought the idea from his homeland, Germany. Portuguese enjoy decorating Christmas trees. They are in every house, every shop, or outside on the city streets. Watch the short video on the tallest Christmas tree in Europe, displayed in 2007 at Oporto city, Northern Portugal.

3. As in many countries, some Portuguese city streets and some buildings get lovely colorful decorations in the month of December. At 6PM is already night in Winter. It's beautiful to leave our jobs and walk home under decorated streets. And don't forget that we have a milder winter climate! If it’s not Christmas without snow for you, you must go to the Serra da Estrela in central Portugal. Christmas lights every year are criticized by many, but every year the stores are filled with new offers of lights. The houses are now more decorated on the outside than I remember. As for public decorations, many argue that the municipality should save this money and use it to benefit those in need or to carry out necessary work.

4. Children are encouraged to ask for presents from Baby Jesus, not Santa Claus. Baby Jesus is believed to bring presents to children on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. Or early in the morning. The gifts are left under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace or placed under the Christmas tree after they were properly cleaned and shiny to please Baby Jesus. Now it is also acceptable to believe that is Santa who delivers gifts but still not cookies and milk are left out for Pai Natal in Portugal.

5. Portuguese celebrate Christmas with a rich table of sweets, desserts and cakes, dry fruits, and good wine and liquors. The traditional Christmas cake is 'Bolo Rei' (which means 'King Cake') and is placed in the center of the table. It's a wreath-like fruit cake laced with crystallized fruits and pine nuts.It symbolizes the gifts offered by the Magi to the Baby Jesus. The crust symbolizes the gold, the dried and crystallized fruits the myrrh, and the aroma of the cake the incense.

There was a tradition about a tiny present hidden inside the cake and a dry broad bean. The person who got the slice of cake with the fava has to pay for the cake the following year. The tiny presents, usually metal pins, were forbidden some years ago to avoid accidental swallowing. I collected a few and I think I still keep some. In recent years another cake came to our tables, the Bolo Rainha (which means Queen cake). This one doesn’t have dried fruits, but extra nuts. Both are mainly eaten between Christmas and January 6th, when the three wise men arrive. I start to eat it as soon as it shows early December because I really like the fruits in the dough.

6. Traditional Christmas meal takes place on the evening of Christmas Eve. We call it the Consoada or Ceia de Natal. The popular dish of Consoada consists of boiled dried codfish and boiled potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and eggs, all sprinkled with olive oil, vinegar, and minced garlic. Cod at supper on December 24th is the most common, a habit that has been maintained for at least five centuries. The tradition is old, some place it in the Middle Ages. In the North, from Minho to Trás-os-Montes, the octopus is king at the Christmas table mainly because of the geographical proximity to Galicia, the world leader in octopus fishing.

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After this light meal, some families eat exquisite meat dishes and traditional sweets. Usually, we eat fried daugh desserts: "Filhoses or filhós" which are made of fried dough, flour, eggs, and lemon zest, and, sometimes, pumpkin. Or Rabanadas also called fatias douradas, a kind of French toast with a wine sauce, that is yummy! To make it, we cut the bread into slices, and dip it in milk beaten with egg. Then we fry each slice in hot oil in a skillet for a few seconds on each side. I sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon and pour a sugar and Port wine syrup on top! It's very good! I also like Sonhos, another fried dough sweet (literally, the word means Dreams) and Aletria. This dessert is made with vermicelli pasta.

7. After dinner meal, the tradition for religious people is to go to church for the midnight mass or  Missa do Galo or Mass of the Rooster service. It's celebrated at midnight to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. After the service people return home to open their presents. This isn't as common as a few years ago but regions in the interior of Portugal still follow this ritual. 

In the regions of Bragança, Guarda, or Castelo Branco, (interior of the country) a yule log is burned in the atrium of the village church after mass. People gather there to wish each other a Merry Christmas or Feliz Natal.The Madeiros, Madeiros de Natal or Fogueiras do Galo are big bonfires lit around midnight after the Missa do Galo and are supposed to burn all night.

8. On Christmas Day you must sleep late. The living room table remains set all day with sweets and dry fruits and a bottle of Port Wine. People enjoy lunch together and stay home most of the day enjoying themselves or watching some TV. Roast chicken, lamb, or turkey are common meat dishes in this day. Some people eat bacalhau again. This dish is known as Roupa Velha (old clothes) because it's the leftover from the Consoada and also because the ingredients are cut into pieces and jumbled up in a mixture of colors that resemble old clothes in a pile!

9. And did I mention exchanging Christmas greeting cards? Today people just don't send as many greeting cards as they used to. It's expensive and it takes time to choose and write. So more and more people just send an SMS or an email or use Facebook. But the most traditional ones still buy Christmas cards to send to family, friends, and customers.

10. And what about Christmas markets that are so traditional in Europe? Well, that's not a big thing in Portugal. Small initiatives appear here that do not resemble European Christmas markets in terms of brightness or size. Even so, they are always pleasant to visit because it will always be warmer than in Paris, Germany, or London.

11. Christmas decorations are put up earlier each year but the holiday kind of officially ends on the 6th of January, Dia de Reis or the Wise Kings Day. That's when I take the tree down.  By the 26th, it’s back to business as usual. We don't have Boxing Day, which is celebrated in the UK and other parts of Europe. After New Year’s Eve, or Réveillon, most people will stay home for the 1st of January. Singing the Janeiras is an old tradition that still takes place in some places between January 1st and January 6th. Groups gather in and wander the streets and houses singing, wishing people a happy new year, and asking for leftovers or money.

12. No, we don't have an Ugly Sweater tradition in Portugal. The ugly sweater first became a household meme in the 1980s with The Cosby Show's, Bill Huxtable leading the way. Chevy Chase's character in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation added the holiday twist to this look. 

Visit A Portuguese Love Store for more gifts inspired by Portuguese pop culture 
and traditions. Thank you!


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