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Portugal is a relatively small nation of only 10 million people that shares the Iberian Peninsula with much-larger Spain. Though having much in common with Spain, it has its own language and culture, and Christmas in Portugal is not quite the same as anywhere else on earth. According to the 2011 Census, over 80 percent of Portugal’s people are Roman Catholic, only three percent follow other Christian denominations, and the rest are mostly “undecided” or “irreligious.” Only 18 percent say they attend mass regularly, but nonetheless, Christmas is often kept in a very religious manner.
Some of the most important traditions kept by most Portuguese include the following:
On Christmas Eve, the traditional dinner consists of codfish, boiled cabbage and potatoes, and various vegetables. Desert will likely involve “filhoses,” which is fried pumpkin dough; “rabanadas,” which is very similar to French toast; and a fruit cake called “Bolo Rei,” which has hidden prizes inside. It also has an uncooked bean baked into it, and whoever gets the bean in their piece has to buy the Bolo Rei next Christmas Eve.
As in neighbouring Spain, a traditional Christmas Day breakfast, called a “consoda,” is consumed by families on Christmas Eve. In Portugal, an extra “early breakfast” is also eaten in the wee hours of the morning, called a “consoada.” At this meal, crumbs are placed on the hearth and extra chairs at the table “for the souls of the dead to consume.” For Christmas Day lunch, people now generally eat turkey and stuffing, but more traditional fare would be pork in southern Portugal and goat or lamb in the north.
On Christmas Eve, after eating dinner, families often go to a midnight mass to await the dawning of Christmas morning. A statue of baby Jesus is produced during this service, which all the congregants go forward to kiss. A “presepio” (nativity scene) will also be set up at church, and most families also have one set up at home. Baby Jesus is left out of the presepio until he is “sneaked” in just before going to midnight mass. When children return after the service, they see that Jesus has appeared just in time for Christmas Day.
Presents are generally opened up after midnight mass when families return home. While Santa Claus (“Father Christmas”) is said to bring children presents every Christmas Eve, others say that the baby Jesus brings the presents. Thus, even a secular tradition is blended with religious beliefs in these cases. Since Jesus appears in the nativity set just as the presents arrive, His presence is associated with gift-giving. Many Portuguese homes do have a Christmas tree these days, but the presepio is still often the real centre of attention.
Activities you may wish to engage in should you be in Portugal include the following:
- Visit churches, shops, and malls to see the presepios. In some places, there are life-sized statues of over 100 different figures, accompanied by dazzling lights, turning windmills, flowing waterfalls, and more.
- In Lisbon, attend the Christmas Multi-Media Show in Comercio Square, where a 15-minute Christmas show is projected onto the triumphal arch. It runs from December 11th through the 20th and is free for all.
- See the Christmas Village in Obidos. There are numerous Christmas activities held here between December 4th and January 3rd. The castle and narrow streets of the town date from Medieval times.
- In the region known as Penamacor, you can attend the “Christmas Madeiro” they put on every Christmas Eve. The festivity consists of a huge bonfire where people gather to sing and talk after midnight mass. Traditionally, the trees burned in it are stolen by young boys, but these days, parents secretly pay for them.
If in Portugal for your next Christmas, be sure to explore Portuguese Christmas traditions and special events. And be sure to wish everyone a “Feliz Natal!”