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Christmas in Portugal 

Christmas in Portugal 

Portugal may be a small country in size but it’s big when it comes to traditions, and Christmas is a perfect example of that. The festive season is hugely important for the Portuguese people, and many different traditions take place all over the country.   

Solidarity, love and prosperity are themes that are seen in the celebrations held throughout the country. There are a number of traditions that are followed by many families in Portugal to help bring out the magic of the festive season. You’ll see many Christmas trees, nativity scenes, and Christmas lights both illuminating the streets, and lighting up the outside houses all over the country.  

How is Christmas celebrated in Portugal?  

For the Portuguese, Christmas is synonymous with family. Christmas Day (the 24th) celebrations focus on spending time with family and a few close friends. The cold weather means that gathering by the fireplace is common. As many of the Portuguese living in bigger cities come from small villages and towns, they will often return to their home town or village to gather with their families.  

The celebration on Christmas Day has two main ingredients: a table laden with sweets and delicacies, and the exchange of gifts. There are however, a number differences in how the day is celebrated and the traditions that take place during this time across the country.

In the northern region, the main dish eaten on the night of the 24th has both codfish and octopus, and it is always accompanied by potatoes and cabbage. The next day you eat "roupa velha", which is made up of the codfish, cabbage and potatoes left over from the day before, together with goat or lamb.   

In the Lisbon area you’ll find typical dishes from all over the country, brought by the migratory flux of the 20th century. People will usually eat cod and turkey on Christmas Eve, followed by pork loin and lamb on the 25th.   

At the table of those in the Alentejo, the big difference can be seen at lunch on the 25th where rooster is often served. In the Algarve, besides the typical codfish, galo de cabidela is eaten.   

According to Portuguese tradition the Christmas table must remain in place until the next day. After the dishes of the night of the 24th are eaten, the desserts remain on the table until the 25th. The most common typical sweets are "rabanadas", "filhoses", "sonhos" and "bolo-rei".   

The exchange of presents is also different from house to house. For some people, presents are exchanged at midnight of the 24th, brought by the gentleman who travels by sleigh, well known among children and adults across the world. Whilst Father Christmas was born in a Coca-Cola advertisement, for the Portuguese this gentleman was born in the North Pole and is responsible for bringing the presents to the fireplace or window, depending on the house, to children that have been well-behaved throughout the year. He also comes as a great help to parents during this time of the year, when many use him as a bargaining chip to get their children to behave well (it is common to hear "if you misbehave Father Christmas won't bring you any presents").  

In other families the exchange of gifts takes place on the morning of the 25th, in this case they are said to be brought to the children by the baby Jesus.   

Being a mostly Christian country many families gather after dinner in church to attend the midnight mass. For that reason in the islands Christmas Eve dinner is lighter where it's tradition to eat chicken soup with rice.  

Christmas is taken very seriously in Portugal but there are customs that are specific to each region and only those who spend Christmas there can experience them. For example in Trás-os-Montes, the Caretos de Varge are part of the winter solstice celebration, and it is an almost spiritual experience. Masked men, called caretos, spread chaos in the village of Varge.

In the city of Braga there is no Christmas without Bananeiro. One of Braga's favourite traditions started about 40 years ago when the shopkeepers of Rua do Souto decided to gather outside the Casa das Bananas, in the late afternoon of the 24th December, in order to wish "good Christmas" to acquaintances and strangers, accompanied by a glass of moscatel wine and a banana.   

The habit of "eating a banana and drinking" went from a gathering of a small group of friends and customers to becoming a meeting point for all citizens of Braga on Christmas Eve. Nowadays, on the afternoon of the 24th December the street is invaded by thousands of people to fulfil the ritual.  

In the interior of the country, Christmas is marked by the ceremony of the burning of logs during the night of 24th December. The "cepo" or log consists of a large bonfire that is usually made in the churchyard, where the population gathers after Midnight Mass. The bonfire remains active all night until it dies down and goes out by itself.   

As you can see, although Portugal has been the destination of many emigrants in recent years, it has maintained its roots and traditions, trying to instil them in the younger people so that they may continue. Although customs are different in every home, the Christmas spirit of the Portuguese remains unchanged year after year. We all have a sweeter, more supportive heart at this time of year; a time when the importance of love and sharing is appreciated just that bit more.   


Written by Cláudia Ferreira