Until recently Christmas in Portugal was celebrated more modestly than in the UK and USA, but it is fair to say that it is becoming more commercial. Pai Natal (Father Christmas) has insinuated his way into what has always been a religious festival and Christmas lights and Christmas trees can be seen in the streets and in shops, etc from early December. Advent calendars are widely available and Christmas cards are sent and received, although not as in such a large number as in the UK and USA, and this tradition does seem to be dying out in favour of electronic Christmas cards and messages.
However, many families, particularly in rural areas, still maintain many of the traditions, particularly when it comes to food.
The Christmas Eve dinner
The main Christmas meal, known as the consoada, is eaten on the evening of Christmas Eve. Most shops and restaurants close early on Christmas Eve, so that the family can celebrate together. The consoada usually consists of a main course of cod served with boiled potatoes and a type of cabbage or green beans, although in the north of the country (the Minho, Douro and Trás os Montes regions) they eat boiled octopus with rice or polvo à lagareiro (octopus in olive oil).
In addition, there will be a huge variety of desserts, cakes and biscuits prepared, such as arroz doce (rice pudding), aletria (similar to arroz doce, but made with angel hair pasta instead of rice), azevias (pastry stuffed with a sweet mixture made of sweet potatoes or chickpeas and ground almonds), broas de mel (a soft biscuit/cake flavoured with spices and honey), rabanadas (a type of French toast), salame de chocolate (a chocolate and biscuit log) and sonhos (a type of doughnut). Most of these contain or are sprinkled with cinnamon, the Portuguese spice of Christmas.
However, the pièce de résistance is the bolo rei (king cake), which is a sweet bread filled with dried fruit and nuts, with crystallized fruits on the top and baked in the shape of a crown. Traditionally the cake is cooked with a fava bean and a small trinket inside and the person who gets the slice with the bean has to bake or buy the cake next year (shop-bought bolo reis don’t usually include the bean or the trinket). There is also an alternative cake called bolo rainha (queen cake) which has nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts) on the top instead of the crystallised fruit.
Needless to say these sweet treats will be served with a glass or two of port or vinho quente (mulled wine). In some regions tradition dictates that the table should not be cleared after the consoada; some say that it is out of respect for members of the family who have died and others believe that the food should be left for the Baby Jesus.
After dinner many families attend midnight mass, which is known as the ‘Missa do Galo’ (Mass of the Cockerel), so named as the only time that the cockerel crowed at midnight was on the night Jesus was born. All churches, town and village squares and most family homes have a presépio (nativity scene) on display, but the figure of Jesus is not added to the manger until after midnight mass.
Nativity scene, Carvoeiro
Nativity scene, Igreja do Divino Salvador, Alvor
Traditionally children left shoes by the fireplace for Menino Jesus (Baby Jesus) to leave a small present and they wouldn’t get the present until the figure of Jesus had been added to the nativity scene. Nowadays they still leave shoes by the fireplace or under the Christmas tree, but they expect Father Christmas (who, they are told, is helped by the Baby Jesus) to leave something more substantial than a small present. Some adults open their presents on Christmas Eve, whereas many less religious people open them on Christmas Day along with the children.
Christmas Day is a more relaxed day than Christmas Eve. It is a public holiday and most shops and restaurants will be closed, although some restaurants in tourist areas open to serve Christmas dinner (it is advisable to book a table in advance). A popular meal eaten in Portuguese homes on this day has the wonderful name of roupas velhas (old clothes) and is a mixture of all the leftover savoury food from the previous evening. Some people will have a roast turkey on this day or another type of meat depending on the region. In Armação de Pêra on the Algarve the Holiday Inn organizes a Santa Swim to raise money for charity, which is a good way of burning off some of the calories gained on the previous evening!
Christmas Day Santa Swim, Armação de Pêra
The 26th December is not celebrated and is a normal working day.
Christmas music is important in the run-up to Christmas in Portugal, but it is true to say that there isn’t a large repertoire of Portuguese Christmas pop songs and those that there are don’t tend to get widely played. English-language Christmas songs, on the other hand, are played endlessly and Michael Bublé’s Christmas album, which has become the soundtrack to Christmas in so many countries, can be heard everywhere you go. However, away from the commercial centres, Portuguese Christmas music can be heard during the Christmas period; ranging from traditional religious songs to Portuguese versions of English-language songs. A small number of Portuguese popular artists have also recorded original Christmas pop songs in Portuguese in an attempt to emulate Bublé et al. Read more about Christmas music here.