Portugal Christmas

December 4th 2023 in Celebration
Portugal Christmas

In Portugal, Father Christmas, also known as 'Pai Natal', is said to deliver presents to children on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. These presents are usually placed under the Christmas Tree or in shoes by the fireplace. However, some believe that the Baby Jesus is the one who brings the presents, not Father Christmas.

Similar to Spain, Portugal's traditional Christmas meal is called 'Consoada' and is eaten on the evening of Christmas Eve. The meal typically consists of salted cod served with green vegetables, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs. This is followed by expensive foods such as shellfish or wild meats. Other popular Christmas foods in Portugal include roast turkey, cakes, fried cookies, nuts, and other delicious treats!

Each region in Portugal has its unique selection of desserts. In the northern province of Minho, the rich would enjoy decadent desserts with lots of eggs, such as 'Lampreia de Ovos' - a sugary egg yolk dessert shaped like a fish. On the other hand, ordinary people would be more likely to have something like rice pudding. French Toast, known as 'Rabanadas', is famous throughout the country, as are fried dough desserts sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, like 'filhós'. Filhós are also made differently in different regions. In the Alentejo province, they are made with grated carrots and shaped into balls, while the Beira Province makes them flat and round with flour, water, and sometimes orange or lemon zest to flavour the dough.

During the Christmas celebrations in Portugal, it's customary to have the 'Bolo Rei' or 'King Cake' placed at the centre of the table. A version without candied fruit, the 'Bolo Rainha,' is also available. The cake contains a hidden broad bean and a gift (a little token). Whoever gets the token gets to keep it, but if someone finds the broad bean, they have to pay for next year's 'Bolo Rei.' People also indulge in 'azevias' and 'felhozes' (Portuguese biscuits and sweets) while drinking traditional liquor and port wine. The celebration goes on till the early hours of the morning!

After the Christmas evening meal, people attend the 'Missa do Galo' or 'Mass of the Rooster' service at the church. During the service, an image of baby Jesus is brought out, and everyone queues up to kiss it. After that, it is placed in the nativity scene (known as the presépio) that every church will have.

Before leaving for the service, parents secretly put the baby Jesus in the nativity scene in their houses. Meanwhile, they place the gifts under the Christmas tree so that Jesus will 'miraculously' be in his manger when the family returns home. The children run to check the nativity scene as soon as they enter the house, as no baby Jesus means no presents!

Some families have two present opening times; children are allowed to open a few gifts after the midnight mass and the rest in the morning. However, for those who don't attend a midnight service, the gifts are kept under the tree, and the family opens them when they wake up.

The living room table remains untouched on Christmas Day, and people still enjoy their goodies together! Families come together and have Christmas Day lunch as a tradition.

Christmas trees have become a common sight nowadays, but they were not as popular around the 1970s. Instead, the Nativity Scene or Presépio is the traditional Christmas decoration in Portugal. Most families have a small one with just the holy family and animals. Still, some have dozens of characters, including the sacred family, wise men, shepherds, farmers, and various folk characters. Children enjoy making the nativity scene by fetching moss to make grass and arranging the figures.

Some shops and clubs still build huge nativity scenes with over one hundred figures, waterfalls, rotating windmills, and lights. People like to visit these big scenes.

In the region of Penamacor, a unique Christmas tradition called the 'Christmas Madeiro' takes place on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, young men about to go into the military (for compulsory military service) would steal entire trees to make the tallest fire in the churchyard. This tradition is still carried out in some areas even though mandatory military service was stopped in 2004 in Portugal. The fire is lit just before the midnight mass or during it "to warm baby Jesus's feet" and also gives people a place to meet friends, chat, and sing songs when they come out of the midnight mass. The Madeiro is sometimes so big that it will also keep burning for Christmas day!

Traditionally, the wood for the Madeiro was stolen and should not be bought. If the owners of the trees caught the boys, they had to pay for it. However, nowadays, the wood is usually delivered after Christmas, or the boy's parents discretely donate it, or relatives tell them where some sick trees are or which ones need to be felled so they can get them from there!

After Christmas (and never before!), and during the first weeks of January, groups of people will go from house to house with an image of the baby Jesus in his manger singing the 'Janeiras' songs (January songs). Small instruments often accompany them. They usually start with an opening song asking the house owner for food and drink! The owner of the house should invite them in to warm up and help themselves to a spread of snacks. These can be sweet, like dry figs with walnuts, savouries like cheese and chorizo, and some wine or brandy.

During the Epiphany celebrations in Portugal, singers go door-to-door singing songs. If someone refuses to open the door or offers subpar food and drink, the singers may mock them in their songs. However, if the hosts are generous, they will be praised, and any single girl present will be complimented. On the Island of Madeira, these singers are known as the "Cantar os Reis" or "Singing the Kings". In Funchal, a famous concert is held annually on the 5th of January in the Auditorium of the Municipal Gardens.

"Happy/Merry Christmas" is "Feliz Natal" in Portuguese. To wish someone a "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year", you can say "Feliz Natal e um feliz ano novo".