Christmas Traditions in Portugal
Every year on the night of December 24th, Portugal, a predominantly Christian country, celebrates Christmas. In a small country like ours, one would think that there might not be variations in the Christmas season celebrations, but, in fact, each region has its own traditions. If you have never spent Christmas in Portugal, or more precisely in the Algarve, this article will tell you what customs are common in the celebrations of this holiday.
We have reached the last month of the calendar, which is a cause for celebration in Portugal. Christmas is celebrated, and a new year begins a week later. In the last weeks of the year, there are preparations and traditions that the Portuguese want to hold on to for many years to come. Houses and streets are decorated, and the preparations can begin as early as the beginning of November. In this article, you will learn more about the traditions that characterise the Christmas season in Portugal.
Christmas traditions in Portugal
1. Santa Claus
It is not the most Portuguese of traditions, as the figure of the white-bearded man dressed in red with a sleigh pulled by reindeer was created by a world-renowned soft drink brand. Over the years, the Portuguese have acquired this figure to cheer up the children. After all, it is Santa Claus who brings the presents at midnight. He comes down the chimney and puts the gifts under the tree. Children are only children until they stop believing in this figure who visits them at home on Christmas Eve.
2. Christmas crib
Although a nativity scene is no longer pompously displayed next to every Christmas tree in every home, there are still people who insist on this tradition and recreate this biblical scene. The simplest nativity scene depicts the birth of the baby Jesus, on a manger, with his parents adoring him, a cow and a donkey warming him with their breath. A little further away from the humble hut, the three Magi can be seen following a star. In the Algarve, it is traditional to put up small streams of water and moss from the region's mountain ranges.
In some municipalities in the Algarve, you can still see handmade Christmas cribs with thousands of figures and replicas of some of the places in the region. An example of this is the nativity scene made every year at the Lagos Cultural Centre, or the largest nativity scene in the country, which can be found in Vila Real de Santo António.
3. Exchange gifts
Without wanting to take away the magic of Christmas from children, we can say that the presents under the Christmas tree do not come from Santa Claus but from adults. On the night of the 24th to the 25th, it is usual to open presents after midnight or early Christmas morning.
In many households or at dinner parties among friends, there is also the tradition of exchanging gifts with the game "secret friend". Each participant takes a piece of paper with a name from a bag and cannot divulge that name until the day of the dinner, where gift exchanges take place.
Christmas dinners on the weekends before Christmas are also part of Portuguese traditions. These dinners can be among colleagues from the same company, hobby colleagues or among friends who take this opportunity to sit at the table for many, many hours.
4. Christmas menu
We can see the cultural diversity within such a small country as Portugal in the Christmas recipes. If in the Alentejo there are "Azevias" (deep-fried sweets traditionally served at Christmas), in the Algarve there are "Sonhos" (orange-flavoured deep-fried sweets also served at Christmas).
Boiled cod with potatoes and cabbage is the main host in Portuguese households, but it can also be "Cabidela rooster" (in the Algarve) or boiled octopus (a typical dish in Beira Litoral, Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro). On Madeira Island, there are the typical kebabs on a laurel stick, and in the Azores, there is chicken broth or "torresmos" with yams and black pudding.
5. Bolo Rei (King's Cake)
This cake is a staple on Portuguese Christmas tables every year. It is round and has dried fruit and candied fruit on top. For a few years now, this typical Christmas cake has lost a universally known tradition. In the middle of the pastry, it was customary to find a metal gift and a broad bean. The person who would get the broad bean on the slice would have to pay for the following year's bolo rei so that the tradition of always having this cake on the table could continue. Today, for safety reasons, it is no longer possible to place the gift and the broad bean in the middle of the cake.
There are other variations of the Bolo Rei (King's Cake), such as the Bolo Rainha (Queen's Cake - with dried fruit only), the Chocolate Bolo Rei or the Gila Bolo Rei (common cake in Algarve patisseries).
6. Midnight Mass
This tradition is less common in large urban areas, but in villages or smaller parishes, people usually leave for church just before midnight. Midnight Mass is held, and then the gifts are opened at home. Midnight Mass in Portuguese is "Missa do Galo", which literally means the "Rooster Mass".
7. Christmas log
On the night of 24 December, the tree boot is burned in different areas, from some cities in Baixo Alentejo to Trás-os-Montes. It is a large fire, usually made in a central place or in the churchyard, where the citizens gather before Christmas Eve and return to this place after opening the presents at home. It is a way of keeping warm and meeting during the festive season.
These and other traditions make this time of year one of the most special. Not only do families gather, but there is also more sharing, and the streets of the Algarve fill with those who want to spend Christmas Eve with us. Spend the Christmas season in our company and experience some of these Christmas traditions in the Algarve first-hand. See here, in Baía da Luz, which apartment is the best for you and your family.