A small guide to Christmas traditions in Portugal

Hello Zazzlers and friends!

Every year, I receive numerous inquiries from my foreign friends and readers, primarily on Facebook, about Christmas traditions in Portugal. Although countless texts discuss this topic, here's another one to provide insight into the way the Portuguese celebrate Christmas today. I will touch upon general trends as various possibilities exist. Christmas celebrations in Portugal vary from one family to another and from place to place. Some adhere to more traditional customs, while others celebrate with greater flexibility.

As you may already be aware, Catholicism is the predominant religion in Portugal. The tradition of gift-giving is deeply ingrained, but Christmas is still considered a profoundly religious occasion, and many people celebrate it in accordance with Christian religious beliefs. It's a celebration of family, a time for loved ones to come together, and a season of comfort.

During my childhood, our family would gather, the traditional seasonal fare would grace the table, and gifts would be exchanged – placed in the shoe by the Baby Jesus! We didn't hang stockings for Christmas presents, nor did we believe Santa Claus was the bearer of gifts. As I grew older, my sister and I didn't receive numerous presents under the tree, but we always had the one we wanted the most.

Back in the 1970s, plastic Christmas trees weren't yet in vogue, but my mother already owned a small, dark green one. This plastic tree didn't replace the natural pine that my father would procure from the forest. Everyone would venture into the woods to cut a pine tree as perfectly round as possible. At that time, environmental consciousness wasn't a topic of discussion. To this day, the scents of pine trees and pumpkin pies baking in the oven – lovingly prepared by my grandmother – continue to encapsulate the essence of Christmas. We didn't place a nativity scene under the Christmas tree.

Attending mass was also a part of our Christmas tradition, though never during the night. The "Missa do Galo," as it is known, was not our preference. I never had a strong inclination for church visits, even as a child. An unusual custom in the city where I grew up, Braga, was the act of kissing the baby Jesus. The statue rested on a crimson velvet cushion, and the priest offered it to the people who queued up. Although my mother assumed I would appreciate it, quite the opposite was true. Kissing the baby Jesus held little appeal to me and I still vividly remember the priest wiping the previous person's kiss with a
 handkerchief. I never lose the sense of discomfort of that scene!

How do the Portuguese celebrate Christmas today?

In the 13th century, the concept of recreating the stable where Jesus was born was introduced by St. Francis of Assisi. Many of us incorporate a nativity scene or "Presépio" into our homes, complete with traditional figurines such as Mary, Joseph,  an ox, a donkey, and baby Jesus. The Three Wise Men and the shepherds are also part of the scene. Often, the nativity scene is left empty until the birth of baby Jesus, and the Three Wise Men are gradually moved closer to the Child.

Nowadays, cribs are created using a variety of materials. It's not uncommon to find cribs placed beside roads on roundabouts or even live nativity scenes featured in local festivities. São Paio de Oleiros earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for hosting the world's largest moving nativity scene, while a man from Santa Maria da Feira holds the record for the most mechanical figures in a nativity scene.

Nativity scenes can range from the simple to the incredibly intricate, featuring numerous figurines. In Portugal, there is a strong tradition of nativity scenes, and those sculpted by the artist Machado de Castro are renowned worldwide and considered true works of art. In my childhood in the north of the country, I recall popular nativity scenes displayed in churches, featuring hundreds of small clay figures painted in vibrant colors, nestled in real moss. Some even had mechanical elements!

The introduction of the Christmas tree in Portugal can be traced back to the 19th century when King D. Fernando II decided to have one for his children in the palace, dressing as Saint Nicholas to distribute gifts. This marked the first reference to a Christmas tree in Portugal, brought to the country from his native Germany. Portuguese people enthusiastically embrace the tradition of decorating Christmas trees, with trees adorning homes, shops, and streets. In 2007, Oporto City in Northern Portugal displayed the tallest Christmas tree in Europe.

Similar to many other countries, some streets in Portugal and specific buildings are adorned with vibrant decorations throughout the month of December. By 6 PM, it's already nighttime in winter, creating a delightful atmosphere for those heading home from work. Portugal boasts a relatively mild winter climate, making it particularly enjoyable to stroll beneath the festive street decorations. While Christmas lights are criticized by some each year, new lighting options appear in stores, and houses are now more elaborately decorated on the outside than in the past. Regarding public decorations, many debate whether municipalities should allocate funds to festive displays or utilize the resources for those in need or essential infrastructure projects.

In Portugal, children are encouraged to ask for gifts from Baby Jesus, rather than Santa Claus. Baby Jesus is believed to deliver presents on Christmas Eve, typically in the early morning hours. The gifts are placed under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace, especially if the shoes have been meticulously cleaned and polished to please Baby Jesus. While it is acceptable to believe that Santa Claus delivers gifts, the Portuguese custom of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus is not common.

The Portuguese celebrate Christmas with a delectable assortment of sweets, desserts, cakes, dried fruits, good wines, and liquors. The traditional Christmas cake is the "Bolo Rei" (King Cake), which is positioned at the center of the table. This fruitcake, adorned with crystallized fruits and pine nuts, is wreath-shaped and symbolizes the gifts offered by the Magi to Baby Jesus. The crust represents gold, the dried and crystallized fruits symbolize myrrh, and the cake's aroma evokes the scent of incense.

Traditionally, there was a practice of hiding a small gift and a dried broad bean inside the cake. The person who discovered the slice with the bean had to cover the cost of the cake the following year. The tiny gifts, often metal pins, were banned some years ago due to the risk of accidental swallowing. I have collected a few of these small gifts, and I believe I still have some. In recent years, another cake known as the "Bolo Rainha" (Queen Cake) has also become a part of our Christmas tradition. This cake is distinct from the Bolo Rei in that it omits dried fruits but includes extra nuts. Both cakes are typically enjoyed between Christmas and January 6th, which marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men. Personally, I start savoring them in early December as I particularly enjoy the fruits within the dough.The traditional Christmas meal in Portugal takes place on Christmas Eve, known as "Consoada" or "Ceia de Natal." 

One of the popular dishes associated with Consoada consists of boiled dried codfish, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and eggs, all drizzled with olive oil, vinegar, and minced garlic. The tradition of consuming codfish on the evening of December 24th is deeply ingrained, with historical roots that extend back several centuries, including the Middle Ages. In the northern regions, from Minho to Trás-os-Montes, octopus takes precedence at the Christmas table, largely due to its geographic proximity to Galicia, a region renowned for its octopus fishing.

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Following the lighter meal, many families indulge in exquisite meat dishes and traditional sweets. Among the favorite sweet treats are fried dough desserts, such as "Filhoses" or "Filhós," made from fried dough, flour, eggs, and lemon zest, and sometimes, pumpkin. Another popular choice is "Rabanadas," also known as "Fatias Douradas," a type of French toast served with a wine sauce that's simply delightful. To prepare Rabanadas, we slice bread into pieces, soak them in milk beaten with egg, and then fry each slice in hot oil in a skillet for a few seconds on each side. We sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon and drizzle a syrup made from sugar and Port wine on top for a delectable result. I also have a soft spot for "Sonhos," another fried dough sweet whose name translates to "Dreams," and "Aletria," a dessert made with vermicelli pasta.

On Christmas Day, the tradition is to sleep in, and the dining table remains set throughout the day with an array of sweets, dried fruits, and a bottle of Port Wine. Families enjoy a leisurely lunch together and spend most of the day at home, indulging in relaxation and perhaps watching some TV. Common meat dishes include roast chicken, lamb, or turkey. Some people even opt for bacalhau again, which is known as "Roupa Velha," or "old clothes," because it's made from the leftovers of the Consoada and features ingredients cut into pieces that create a colorful and layered appearance resembling a pile of old clothing.

Exchanging Christmas greeting cards is a cherished tradition. While many now opt for quicker means of communication, such as sending SMS, emails, or using social media like Facebook, traditionalists still purchase Christmas cards to send to family, friends, and customers.

Christmas markets, so prevalent in Europe, are not a prominent feature in Portugal. While smaller initiatives do appear, they lack the grandeur and scale of European Christmas markets. Nevertheless, these initiatives are always enjoyable to visit and have the added advantage of milder temperatures compared to places like Paris, Germany, or London.

The Christmas decorations seem to go up earlier each year, but the holiday season officially concludes on January 6th, known as "Dia de Reis" or the Wise Kings Day. This is when the Christmas tree is usually taken down. By the 26th, things return to normal, and Portugal doesn't have an equivalent to Boxing Day, as celebrated in the UK and some other parts of Europe. Following New Year's Eve, or "Réveillon," most people spend January 1st at home. Singing the Janeiras is an old tradition still observed in some places between January 1st and January 6th. Groups gather to stroll the streets and houses, singing songs, wishing people a happy new year, and often seeking leftovers or donations.

In Portugal, there is no tradition of "Ugly Sweater" parties. The phenomenon of the "Ugly Sweater" took root in the 1980s, gaining recognition through television shows like The Cosby Show with Bill Huxtable and films like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase.