Assumption Day, 15th August, Festivals

Assumption Day, 15th August

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Church of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes, Armação de Pêra

 

Dia da Assunção de Nossa Senhora (Assumption Day) is a religious festival that takes place on 15th August which celebrates the Catholic Church’s belief that the Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, did not die but instead her body and soul were assumed into heaven.

Throughout the country there are processions of the statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets, followed by a Mass. But for many people the national holiday falls right in the middle of the summer holiday season and is an excuse to head to the beach!

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.

Festivals, Lisbon, The Festival of Saint Anthony in Lisbon: a celebration of weddings, parades and the humble sardine

The Festival of Saint Anthony in Lisbon: a celebration of weddings, parades and the humble sardine

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Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony’s church, Lisbon

The festival of Saint Anthony on 12th and 13th June is the party of the year in Lisbon. It has the same importance in Lisbon as the festival of Saint John has in Porto, but it is celebrated in a very Lisboan style. Saint Anthony, along with Our Lady of the Conception, is the patron saint of Portugal and is the unofficial patron saint of Lisbon along with the official patron saint, Saint Vincent. He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in what is now Saint Anthony’s church in Lisbon in 1195 and died on 13th June 1231, which is why his feast is celebrated on this day. He is a saint associated with many things including sailors, fishermen, farmers, travellers, the poor, the oppressed, the elderly, financial problems, lovers, marriage, the home and family, pregnant and childless women, single women, missing people and lost objects. The party-like celebrations take place on the 12th June, including the Saint Anthony weddings and the Marchas Populares, and the religious celebrations take place on 13th June.

The Saint Anthony weddings (Casamentos de Santo António) are one of the most endearing parts of the festival of Saint Anthony celebrations. In a tradition dating from 1958 (despite a 30-year pause after the 1974 revolution), the city council of Lisbon pays for the wedding of 16 couples who get married en masse at Lisbon city hall or in Lisbon cathedral on 12th June. The original idea for the Saint Anthony weddings was to help couples whose families couldn’t afford to pay for their wedding and while this may no longer be the case, couples (of which one member of each has to live in Lisbon) have to apply and be selected and in return the city council, through the sponsorship of various companies, provides them with the bride’s wedding dress, shoes, bouquet, hairdresser and make-up artist, the groom’s suit, the wedding rings, photographs, wedding car, honeymoon and money towards furnishing their new home. The weddings are covered throughout the day on Portugal’s national television station, RTP. With careful planning we were lucky enough to see both sets of couples appear after their respective weddings. The first couples to get married were the five couples who had a civil wedding in the city hall in the Praça do Município around midday. This was a simple but moving wedding followed by the couples appearing on the balcony where they were serenaded by the VenusMonti tuna group, made up of students from Lisbon University Faculty of Law. The couples then came down to the square where they danced to more music from VenusMonti, including Se Tu Soubesses (‘If You Only Knew’).

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Saint Anthony brides and grooms on the balcony of Lisbon City Hall, Praça do Município, Lisbon
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Saint Anthony brides and grooms dancing outside Lisbon City Hall, Praça do Município, Lisbon
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VenusMonti tuna group, Praça do Município, Lisbon

After they had gone back into the city hall it wasn’t clear what was going to happen next, but half an hour later (at around 2pm) the 11 brides who were getting married in the cathedral appeared with their maids of honour walking towards the waiting classic cars. One-by-one the cars headed to the cathedral where the brides met their waiting fathers and entered the cathedral.

There were already crowds of people waiting outside the cathedral and as the service, which lasted over two hours (made longer by nine couples who had got married in 1968 renewing their vows), went on more people kept arriving. Even though there was nothing to see, except a man setting up a confetti machine, a brass band arriving and warming up, and the wedding service being broadcast through loudspeakers almost as background noise, people were determined to stand and wait for the newly-weds to come out of the cathedral. After what seemed an eternity, the couples finally appeared to the sound of the Banda de Música da Carris brass band playing Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’ and Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ and we were able to say ‘Vivam os noivos!’ (‘Long live the bride and groom!’).

After the obligatory photos they walked down to the neighbouring Saint Anthony’s church where each couple placed a sunflower on the statue of Saint Anthony, who is known as the holy matchmaker and, as noted above, is the patron saint of lovers and marriage, and more photos were taken.

The couples then walked down the hill and through the Baixa to the Praça do Município, where they met up with the other five couples for more photos on the pillory in the centre of the square, before being driven in the classic cars to the Estufa Fria in Parque Eduardo VII for the copo-d’agua (reception). You would think that the couples would be allowed to enjoy the reception, but as the reception is broadcast on RTP the couples have to give interviews during the evening. After the reception, the couples still have one more engagement: at 11pm they make an appearance, still in their wedding attire, at the Marchas Populares on the Avenida da Liberdade where they are photographed with the President of the Republic. After that they are free to go on their honeymoon, although they are not given the chance to spend much time alone, as all the couples go on the honeymoon as a group.

The Marchas Populares (People’s Parades) are a highlight of the Saint Anthony celebrations on the night of 12th June and it felt like the whole of Lisbon had left the cathedral after the weddings were over and come down to line each side of the Avenida da Liberdade to watch the districts of Lisbon compete in a distinctly Portuguese parade which is a singing and dancing spectacular with colourful costumes and movable scenery. The first Marchas Populares were held in 1932 when the districts of Lisbon were invited to take part in a competition based on their traditional celebrations of the popular saints festivals. Over the years things have changed, but the key elements remain the same: people wearing costumes based on traditional clothes sing and dance to an accompanying marching band. The women wear very flared skirts and march on the spot with their hands on their hips while swinging their hips and shoulders. The men also march on the spot, but not as animatedly. Each year the Marchas Populares have a theme set by the organizers, the Empresa de Gestão de Equipamentos e Animação Cultural (EGEAC), and in 2018 the theme was the very famous and much-loved film A Canção de Lisboa (The Song of Lisbon, 1933) and the equally well-loved actor who starred in it, Vasco Santana (1898-1958). (The film is musical comedy about a medical student (Vasco Santana), whose studies are being paid for by his two wealthy aunts who live in the north of the country. Vasco prefers wine, women and song to studying and when he fails his final exam he lies to his aunts that he has passed the exam and got a job as a doctor. However, things start to go wrong when his aunts arrive in Lisbon wanting to see the doctor’s surgery where he has said he works.) As well as the original songs that each group composes, there had also been a competition earlier in the year to write a song that has become the parades’ theme song, that all the teams have to include in their routine. The winning song for the 2018 parades was a very catchy song, Vasco é Saudade’ (‘Vasco is saudade’: a word that doesn’t easily translate as it conveys a notion of yearning and nostalgia for what is lost, whether it be a place, a person or a way of life, and for what will never be attained). Each group is represented by a madrinha and padrinho (sponsors), minor celebrities who do the obligatory RTP interview and give gifts to the President of the Republic and the Mayor of Lisbon. The Marchas Populares are not for the faint-hearted, as they start at 9pm and don’t finish until 1am, when the 23 competing teams, plus a few other groups, including a group of children representing an educational charity, A Voz do Operário (The Voice of the Worker) and a group of market traders, finish performing.

Judging of the competition is done in two stages: the first is held in the Altice Arena at the beginning of June and the second on the night of 12th June and teams are judged on criteria such as choreography, music, lyrics, costume design and set design. In 2018 the Alfama district was the overall winner. The groups perform at points along the Avenida da Liberdade, the main one being opposite the monument to the First World War and knowing this we positioned ourselves near there before the parades started. However, we soon realized that in order to see the dancing we needed to be sat in one of the stands in front of which the groups perform and those stands are not available to the general public. Therefore all we managed to see on the night were the groups walking down the avenue before and after they had performed. There are a few small TV screens on the back of the stands where we could watch what was being broadcast on RTP, but we decided it would be better to watch it later on catch-up TV and went off in search of the traditional arraiais (street parties) which are held in different neighbourhoods.

On the night the streets are decorated with brightly coloured streamers, the unmistakable smell of sardines being grilled fills the air and loud music can be heard everywhere, particularly songs dedicated to the popular saints such as the strangely titled Marcha do Pião das Nicas (‘March of the Punchbag’) by Carlos Paião, the chorus of which goes:
Viva o Santo António, viva o São João!
Viva o dez de junho e a Restauração!
Viva até São Bento, se nos arranjar!
Muitos feriados para festejar!
(‘Long live Saint Anthony, long live Saint John! / Long live the tenth of June and the restoration! / Long live even Saint Bento, if it can be arranged for us! / So many holidays to celebrate!’)

On our walk around we came across various parties ranging from an informal gathering on the steps of the Calçada do Lavra, to streets with improvised food and drink stalls and live music that were so crowded with people we couldn’t get down them and a big food fair selling all kinds of food and drink at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. In true Saint Anthony style we chose to have a simple but delicious grilled sardine on a slice of bread and a glass of beer served in a plastic cup.

As well as the street parties a feature of the Saint Anthony celebrations is the giving of a manjerico plant (a type of basil) in a pot decorated with a carnation and a small flag with a quadra (a four-line verse) on it. Many of the famous quadras were written by Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most famous twentieth-century poets. In the past a young man would give the plant to his girlfriend as a commitment to marriage. The giving and receiving of the pot of basil is not so binding nowadays, but the recipient is expected to look after the plant for the next 12 months, when it is replaced with a new one. Traditionally single women received a plant with a pink carnation and married women received one with a red or orange carnation, but nowadays any colour goes!

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A manjerico plant

The main event on 13th June is the procession of Saint Anthony which starts at 5pm at Saint Anthony’s church from where the statue of Saint Anthony is carried through the streets of the Alfama stopping at the cathedral to collect the relic of the saint and at other churches to collect icons of other saints on the way, and returning to the cathedral at 7pm for a religious ceremony before carrying the statue back to Saint Anthony’s church. The procession is followed by thousands of people, many carrying candles or carnations which can be bought from a stall outside the church.

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Procession of Saint Anthony, Lisbon

In the entrance to the church we spotted a stall selling very small bread rolls wrapped in paper, the pão de Santo António (Saint Anthony’s bread). These rolls are sold at 30 cents each by the church during the week of the festival of Saint Anthony to raise money for the poor.

The tradition originates from a story that when Saint Anthony was a friar he gave all the monastery’s bread away to the poor and as a result there was none left to feed the monks. The monastery’s baker, believing the bread had been stolen, told Saint Anthony who advised the baker to check again and on doing so the baker found a plentiful supply of bread. Other legends tell of people who over the years have prayed to Saint Anthony and promised to give bread to the poor if he could answer their prayers: one concerns a baker who was unable to unlock the door to her shop until Saint Anthony intervened; and another concerns a mother whose child is believed to have drowned but after praying to Saint Anthony she finds the child is alive.

It is clear from the celebrations that Saint Anthony is a much-loved saint in Lisbon, even if he isn’t the official patron saint of the city, but as a Lisboan told me, if a saint is born in Lisbon he automatically becomes a patron saint in the hearts of the people.

Viva o Santo António!

Festivals, O Dia de Reis - Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January

O Dia de Reis – Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January

DSC00260 (2)O Dia de Reis (King’s Day) is the Portuguese name for Epiphany and celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings at the stable where Jesus was born, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the past it was believed that Christmas presents were delivered by the Three Kings, but recently Father Christmas has taken over that role. However, on the night of 5th January it is still common for children to leave their shoes by the window or door with straw and carrots in them to feed the horses of the Magi who will visit during the night. In return sweets and cakes are left in the shoes as presents for the children. The Dia de Reis festival marks the end of Christmas and many families have a traditional meal similar to the Christmas Eve consoada, including the essential bolo rei (king cake). The next day all the Christmas decorations are taken down.

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Bolo rei

During the period between New Year’s Day and Epiphany it is common to find groups of people in rural areas singing traditional New Year carols known as Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis, accompanied by traditional instruments. (The Cantares dos Reis are similar to the Janeiras, but they relate to the story of the Three Kings and are only sung on 5th and 6th January.) It is reminiscent of the British tradition of carol singing, with the groups going from house to house in the village singing songs announcing the birth of Jesus and wishing the residents a happy new year, or even sometimes making fun of them. In return they are given food, drink, sweets or money. In some towns and villages people dress up as Biblical characters and re-enact the story of the Magi through the streets. The lyrics of the Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis vary from region to region and each town or village will have its own traditions. To give you a flavour, this video clip shows a group of singers in Macedo de Cavaleiros in the Bragança district of north-east Portugal going around the neighbourhood singing Cantares dos Reis and enjoying the hospitality of the residents.

Christmas in Portugal, Festivals

Christmas in Portugal

Christmas tree Alvor
An alternative Christmas tree, Alvor
Christmas lights Carvoeiro
Christmas lights, Carvoeiro

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. 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 some regions they eat boiled octopus with rice.

Dried and salted cod
Dried and salted cod in readiness for the consoada

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).

Needless to say these sweet treats will be served with a glass or two of port.

Midnight mass

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, many 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.

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Nativity scene, Carvoeiro
Nativity scene Alvor
Nativity scene, Igreja do Divino Salvador, Alvor

Presents

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

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!

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Christmas Day Santa Swim, Armação de Pêra

The 26th December is not celebrated and is a normal working day.

A Todos um Bom Natal

The Christmas song A Todos um Bom Natal is Portugal’s answer to ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. It is often sung by children because the chorus is very simple: A todos um bom Natal/A todos um bom Natal./Que seja um bom Natal/Para todos nós./Que seja um bom Natal/Para todos nós. (A good Christmas to everyone/A good Christmas to everyone./Let it be a good Christmas/For all of us./Let it be a good Christmas/For all of us.)

Feliz Natal!

Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December, Festivals

Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December

Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga
Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa da Imaculada Conceição) is a religious holiday in Portugal to celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary, who Catholics believe was born without original sin. Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) is the patron saint of Portugal and the day is a public holiday. The main focus of the day for Catholics is to attend a Mass, but in many places there are also processions through the streets, where a statue of Mary is carried. She is also the patron saint of fishermen and in Quarteira, a coastal town in the Algarve, after being paraded through the streets of Quarteira she is put on a boat and sailed around the Quarteira coast to bless the sea, accompanied by the boats of the local fishermen.

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.

 

 

Festivals, The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

Chestnut vendor Lisbon
Chestnut vendor, Lisbon

St Martin’s Day (Dia de São Martinho) is an autumn festival which coincides with the ripening of the chestnuts and the production of the new wine. St Martin was a soldier who lived in the fourth century and in a famous legend it is said that when he was returning home one day during a terrible storm he came across a beggar who was suffering in the harsh weather. Martin took off his cape, cut it in half and gave one half to the beggar. At that moment the storm abated and the sun came out. Martin gave up the army, became a monk and later the Bishop of Tours, and was ultimately canonized. St Martin’s Day is celebrated on 11th November and often on this date the weather is unseasonably warm and sunny; this is known as o verão de São Martinho (St Martin’s summer). The Portuguese celebrate this day by having a magusto. The magusto varies from region to region, but always involves socializing while eating roast chestnuts and drinking água-pé, jeropiga or the new wine. Água-pé (literally meaning ‘foot water’, from the time when they trod the grapes to make wine) is a drink made from the mixture of grape skins, seeds and pulp (left after the juice has been extracted) with water added to it. Jeropiga is similar to agua-pé but also has a spirit added to it. In rural areas the villagers gather around a bonfire in which the chestnuts are roasted (the word ‘magusto’ is thought to come from the Latin ‘magnus’ meaning ‘big’ and ‘ustus’ meaning ‘burnt’). Some people rub the ashes from the bonfire on their faces, a custom which may date back to pagan times where it was believed that the ashes would ward off evil spirits. In more urban areas the bonfire is replaced with the ubiquitous roast-chestnut vendors. There are often stalls selling regional produce, sometimes there is a pig roast, accompanied by music and dancing.

As the Portuguese saying goes, ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, castanhas e vinho, faz-se uma boa festa pelo São Martinho.’ (equivalent to ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, chestnuts and wine, the party for St Martin is fine.’)

All Saints' Day, 1st November, Festivals

All Saints’ Day, 1st November

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All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos os Santos) is a Christian festival which is observed in Portugal, as in many other Catholic countries, as a public holiday. As the name suggests, it is a feast day for all the saints, but in particular for those who don’t have a feast day at other times of the year. On this day Catholics attend a Mass and then visit the cemetery where family members are buried to lay flowers and light candles on their graves (which will have been cleaned in preparation) to guide their way into heaven, combining All Saints’ Day with All Souls’ Day (Dia de Todas as Almas) which is on 2nd November, but is not a public holiday in Portugal. The cemeteries are a hive of social activity on this day.

While Halloween is not really celebrated in Portugal, in some rural parts of the country there is a tradition reminiscent of ‘Trick or Treat’ which happens on the morning of All Saints’ Day where groups of children go from house to house in their neighbourhood asking for Pão por Deus (Bread for God’s sake). The children sing songs or recite verses such as: ‘Bolinhos e bolinhós/Para mim e para vós/Para dar aos finados/Qu’estão mortos, enterrados.’ (‘Cakes and buns/For me and for you/To give to the departed/That are dead, buried.’) They are rewarded with a piece of sweet bread, cake, fruit, nuts, sweets or even money. One theory is that this All Saints’ Day tradition started in Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755, as it was on 1st November of that year that the Great Lisbon Earthquake destroyed the city leaving those who survived desperate for food. The earthquake hit Lisbon at 9.40 in the morning, when people were in church for the All Saints’ Day Mass, and what the earthquake didn’t destroy the subsequent fires started by the church candles did.

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Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.