As in many countries around the world Portugal celebrates Dia do Trabalhador (Worker’s Day) on 1st May. It is a public holiday that is marked by parades and rallies by left-wing political parties and trade unions. These demonstrations for workers’ rights began in the late-nineteenth century, when 1st of May was named as International Workers’ Day, and continued into the early-twentieth century. It was renamed Festa do Trabalho Nacional (National Celebration of Work) during the oppressive right-wing dictatorship of Salazar and, later, Caetano, when any form of demonstration was violently quashed, and any celebrations on this day were organized and controlled by the State. Worker’s Day was reinstated in May 1974, a week after the Carnation Revolution that had overthrown the dictatorship, and over half a million people gathered in Lisbon to welcome the return of Mário Soares, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, and Álvaro Cunhal, the secretary-general of the Communist Party, who had both been in exile, and to celebrate the freedoms of democracy denied during the dictatorship, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to gather in public. Nowadays, two of the largest rallies, organized by one of the main unions, the Confederaçāo Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses-Intersindical Nacional (CGTP-IN) (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Inter-union), are held in Lisbon and Porto. In Lisbon they gather in the Praça Martim Moniz and march to Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and in Porto the rally is held in the Avenida dos Aliados.
Long before it was named ‘Worker’s Day’, 1st May has had significance as a springtime festival which goes back to Pagan times and throughout the country, but particularly in the Douro, Beira-Alta and Minho regions in the north, is symbolized by the giesta bush (Cytisus striatus or hairy-fruited broom) with its yellow flowers known as Maias which are abundant in late April and early May.
Sprigs or garlands of yellow broom or other flowers are placed in door and window frames, on balconies and even on cars, agricultural machinery and animal sheds before midnight on the night of 30th April to bring prosperity, health, fertility and to ward off the evil spirit known variously, depending on the region, as Maio (May), Carrapato (Tick), Burro (Donkey), Bruxa (Witch) or Mau olhado (Evil eye). During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church banned pagan celebrations, including this tradition of placing flowers on the doors and windows, however, people got around this ban by giving it religious significance and the yellow broom became associated with the Bible story of the flight of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus into Egypt. It was said that in one village where the Holy Family was hiding an informer agreed to put some yellow broom on the house that was sheltering them so that Herod’s soldiers could find them, but when the soldiers arrived the next morning all the houses in the village were displaying yellow broom and the soldiers were unable to find them. In the Trás-os-Montes and Beiras regions chestnuts were seen as a way of keeping the evil spirit at bay, following a proverb: ‘Quem nāo come castanhas no 1˚ de Maio, monta-o o burro’ (‘Whoever doesn’t eat chestnuts on 1st May, will be ridden by the “donkey”.’).
In the past it was common to venerate a May Queen on 1st May, which, depending on the region, was a variation on the theme of a young girl dressed in white wearing a crown of flowers on her head (symbolizing purity and personifying spring). She may have been seated on a throne around which other children danced and sang May songs, she may have walked around the village greeting the local inhabitants or, as in the Trás-os-Montes, rather than being a May Queen, may have been a Maio-Moço (May-Lad), who was a young boy dressed from head to foot in yellow broom whom the girls of the village danced around in a ritual meant to scare away the evil spirits. In Beja (in the Alentejo) a May Queen ritual has been revived in which very young girls dressed in white and with flower garlands on their head are seated on thrones, with small baskets in front of them, who are venerated by song and dance. The baskets relate to a tradition of asking for ‘Uma moedinha (or um tostāozinho) para a Maia que nāo tem saia’ (‘A penny for the Maia who does not have a skirt’). The name ‘Maia’ is thought to originate from Maia, the Roman goddess of spring and growth but the entreaty dates back to the mid-twentieth century when people did not have much money and had to beg for money to buy the basic necessities.
In the Algarve region it is common to see a display of life-size figures filled with straw, rags and newspaper, dressed in traditional clothes, doing everyday activities and accompanied by flowers and satirical verses. It is believed that this is based on an ancient Pagan tradition where people danced around a straw doll, known as a Maia, on 1st May, most probably as a fertility dance. The life-size figures appear at dawn on 1st May and can be seen outside houses or in the street in various places in the Algarve including Lagos and along the side of the main EN125 road between Marim and Alfandanga, near Olhāo. It is clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into making these figures and there is now a competitive element as a prize is awarded to the best ones.
As this is a
public holiday, 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, shops and restaurants in tourist
areas should be open as usual.
After the excesses of carnival, life takes on a more sombre aspect on Quarta-feira de Cinzas (Ash Wednesday), a day which marks the start of Quaresma (Lent) and is celebrated in a secular way by the funeral of the carnival king and in a religious way by Catholics who attend a mass where a cross is made on the forehead using the ashes of the palm and olive branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Catholics in Portugal still adhere to the Church’s dictate that meat should not be eaten on Ash Wednesday or on any Friday during the period of Lent and furthermore that people should do a partial fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I prefer the modern take on abstinence, which is to give up something other than food (such as using social media) that you are willing to sacrifice for 46 days (or 40 days if you allow yourself a reprieve on the Sundays of Lent, when the Catholic Church permits the eating of meat).
In Óbidos the start of Lent is celebrated with a procession on the first Sunday of Lent known as the Procissāo Penitencial da Ordem Terceira (Penitential Procession of the Third Order) (also known as the Procissāo da Rapaziada (Procession of the ‘Gang’)), in which nine litters with statues of saints who were followers of Saint Francis of Assisi (including Saint Louis IX King of France, Saint Isabel Queen of Portugal, Saint Rosa of Viterbo, Saint Margarida of Cortona, Saint Bebiana and Saint Ivo), and Saint Francis of Assisi himself, decorated with flowers are carried through the town to remember the ideals of Saint Francis.
In Braga, the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte on the outskirts the city holds a devoçāo da Via-Sacra (devotions of the Way of the Cross) ceremony every Sunday in Lent. The ceremony starts near the first chapel of the Via-Sacra staircase, goes to each of the 14 chapels (which represent the Stations of the Cross), at each of which a prayer is said, and ends with a celebration of the Eucharist in the church.
The week leading up to Palm Sunday was traditionally the week when people spring cleaned their houses. As well as the practical need to clean the house after the winter, it was also believed that a dirty house couldn’t be blessed on Easter Sunday. Women would take advantage of the spring-like weather and wash or air all the household linen, but a proverb regarding this reminds us that the weather can be unpredictable at Easter: ‘Na semana de Ramos lava os teus panos, que na da Paixāo lavarás ou nāo’, which loosely translates to mean ‘In the week before Palm Sunday (when the weather is good) wash your household linen, as in Holy Week you may or may not be able to wash (and dry) it (as it may be sunny or rainy)’.
Incidentally, April Fools’ Day on 1st April is known as Dia das Mentiras (Day of Lies) in Portugal and is marked by the media reporting hoax news stories, and Portugal celebrates Dia da Māe (Mother’s Day) on the first Sunday in May (not the fourth Sunday of Lent as in the United Kingdom and Ireland).
The week before Easter is known as Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Portugal and begins on Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday), which is celebrated by processions representing Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey where the people welcomed him with palm fronds and olive branches. After the Palm Sunday mass, palm fronds, sprigs of rosemary, olive branches and bunches of flowers are blessed and people carry them in the procession and later take them home where they stay throughout the year to protect it from evil. Those left in the church are burnt and, as mentioned above, used in the Ash Wednesday service the following year.
On Palm Sunday it is traditional for children to give a gift of flowers or sugared almonds to their godparents. Holy Week is marked by processions and Biblical reenactments which take place over the course of the week. The most famous are in Óbidos on Palm Sunday with a procession of Senhor dos Passos (Our Lord of the Stations of the Cross) through the walled town led by a gafaú (a barefoot man dressed from head to foot in black holding a snake-like musical instrument called a serpentão (a windinstrument related to the tuba) who represents the executioner announcing the arrival of the condemned man)
and on Sexta-feira Santa (Good Friday) when a moving torchlight procession re-enacts Jesus being taken down from the cross and his burial, and the night-time processions in Braga in the north of Portugal acted out over several nights. These include the Procissāo dos Passos (Procession of the Stations of the Cross) on Palm Sunday, which depicts scenes of the day of the crucifixion of Christ as Jesus carries the cross around the city; a Biblical procession ‘Vós sereis o Meu povo’ (‘You shall be My people’) on the Wednesday which depicts scenes from the Old and New Testament leading up to the events of the Easter story (the procession is also known as the Procissāo de Nossa Senhora ‘da Burrinha’ (Procession of Our Lady ‘of the Little Donkey’), after the scene which depicts the flight into Egypt);
and on Quinta-feira Santa (Maundy Thursday) a procession of Our Lord Ecce Homo (‘Behold the Man!’), which is also known as Senhor da Cana Verde (Our Lord of the Green Reed), which represents the events in Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas and the scene from the Easter story when the soldiers of Pontius Pilate mock Jesus being named King of the Jews by dressing him in a purple robe, putting a crown of thorns on his head and making him hold a reed in place of a royal sceptre. In this state Jesus is paraded through the streets of Braga led by Farricocos (barefoot penitents dressed in black habits with hoods that cover their entire face and carrying rattles, which they spin noisily, and fogaréus (tall lanterns that contain burning pine cones; the procession is also known as the Procession of the Fogaréus, after the soldiers who arrested Jesus, carrying torches)), and followed by the clergy, people dressed as characters from the story of the Last Supper and the sentencing of Christ, and a marching band.
A particularly emotive procession on Maundy Thursday is the Procissāo do Senhor da Misericórdia (Procession of Our Lord of Mercy, also known as the Procissāo dos Fogaréus(Procession of the Lanterns)) in Sardoal (near Santarém in the Centro region), in which all the street lights are turned off and the only light comes from candles and lanterns carried by the people in the procession, giving the procession a mystical atmosphere. Also on this day the lava-pés (foot washing) ceremony sees 12 people having their feet washed by the priest, representing Jesus washing the feet of the 12 disciples, before the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
Good Friday is a public holiday in Portugal and marked by religious services and processions throughout the country. In Braga the Procissāo do Enterro do Senhor (Burial procession of Our Lord) is a silent procession with mourners accompanying Christ’s coffin through the streets. The mourners include Farricocos, but on this night they walk in silence.
For Catholics it is also a fast day and the main meal eaten on this day is cod. For many non-religious people, the long Easter weekend is an opportunity to go on holiday.
Sabado de Aleluia (Easter Saturday) sees a temporary return to the pre-Lenten silliness of carnival in places such as Figueira da Foz (near Coimbra), Sesimbra (south of Lisbon), Soutocico (near Leiria) and Vila Real (in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north of the country), with a decidedly secular celebration known as the Enterro do Bacalhau (Burial of the Cod). The ceremony marks the end of the period of abstinence from meat in which, in the past, dried salted cod (nicknamed the ‘fiel amigo’ (faithful friend)) was the staple food and during the evening, in a theatrical performance that takes place in the streets, the cod is satirized, tried, sentenced to death and, following a funeral procession behind a coffin with a cardboard cod on top, it is finally buried in the ground. One of the biggest productions in Portugal is the one in Soutocico which was first held in 1938 and takes place every four years with a cast of around 300, followed by a meal of cod for the performers and the audience served at midnight. The tradition of burying the cod originates from the sixteenth century when, although it was forbidden to eat meat during Lent, people could buy a dispensation, but naturally only the very rich could afford to do this. Not surprisingly, the act of burying the cod was seen as a criticism of the church and the ceremony was banned during the years of the Salazar dictatorship.
In addition to the Burial of the Cod, another highlight of Easter Saturday is a the Queima do Judas (Burning of Judas), which occurs throughout Portugal, usually with an effigy of Judas Iscariot being paraded through the streets of the town or village, hanged and then burnt or exploded with fireworks, symbolizing the destruction of evil as well as the end of winter and start of spring. However, in Tondela (near Viseu in the Centro region) the Burning of Judas is a large-scale theatrical musical production, dating from 1985, put on by the Cultural and Recreational Association of Tondela, which takes place in the municipal sports pavilion just before midnight. Rehearsals take place, at what is known as the Fábrica da Queima (Burning Factory), over the week leading up to Easter Saturday with over 300 teenagers from schools around the country being involved and attracting an estimated audience of 6000 people.
In contrast, a simple religious ceremony, the Bênçāo dos Borregos (Blessing of the Lambs), is held in Castelo de Vide in the eastern Alentejo on the morning of Easter Saturday when the lamb market is held and the priest blesses the lambs outside the church.
In the evening the people gather outside the church in a vigil known as Vigília Pascal e Chocalhada (Easter and Cowbell Ringing Vigil) waiting to hear the ringing of the church bells at the end of the service (around 11pm). At that time they start ringing their cowbells and make a procession through the streets of the town.
What must be one of the prettiest Domingo de Páscoa (Easter Sunday) religious processions takes place in Sāo Brás de Alportel (north of Faro in the Algarve region). The Procissāo da Ressurreiçāo (Procession of Resurrection), which is part of the Festa das Torchas Floridas (Flower Torch Festival), is marked by the men of the town carrying torches of flowers; there is a beautiful carpet of flowers on the ground and colourful bedspreads hanging over the balconies of the apartment blocks. As the procession progresses there are shouts of ‘Ressuscito, como disse!’ (‘He has risen, as he said!’), which is followed by more voices shouting ‘Aleluia! Aleluia! Aleluia!’.
Also in the Algarve is the Festa Pequena a Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Little Festival of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as Māe Soberana (Sovereign Mother), the patron saint of Loulé) procession which takes place in Loulé (north-west of Faro) on Easter Sunday when the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the streets to the church of Sāo Francisco. On 5th May, in a procession known as the ‘Festa Grande’ (Big Festival), the statue is then carried from the church to a shrine. This is an important religious festival and is considered to be the biggest one in southern Portugal.
In the village of Fontāo in Ponte de Lima, near Viana do Castelo (in the north-west corner of Portugal) a tradition that has been running for over 30 years, o Mordomo da Cruz (the Steward of the Cross), takes place on Easter Sunday. Despite the name, the main duty of the annually elected steward is to organize a lunch for the local people, which can be up to 500 people, at a cost of around €25,000. The women of the village prepare the meal, which includes traditional Portuguese dishes such as canja de galinha (chicken soup), cod, goat, veal, rice pudding, folar (an Easter sweet bread) and wine, while the teenagers of the village are the waiters and waitresses. At the end of the lunch the following year’s steward is named by the wife of the current steward by handing an orange tree branch to the successor. The name ‘Steward of the Cross’ comes from the fact that he carries the cross around the village in the Easter procession. This tradition, known as the Compasso Pascal (Paschal Visit), is still practiced in villages in the northern part of the country in which the steward, and sometimes the parish priest, will carry the cross from house to house to bless it and the people who live there and the householders will decorate their house with flowers or herbs to welcome the cross and offer food or drink to the cross bearer.
As the long period of Lent comes to an end, people celebrate by eating meat, in particular roast lamb or goat in central and northern Portugal, while in the Algarve pork and chicken is more popular. No home would be complete without the traditional folar, but depending on the region it may be savoury or it may be sweet. In the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of the country they eat Folar de Chaves, savoury bread stuffed with meat such as ham, bacon and sausage. In the south they eat a sweet version called Folar de Olhāo, made with cinnamon and sugar. The most famous is the version with a boiled egg in the middle covered by a dough cross.
While chocolate is ubiquitous, a traditional gift at Easter time is sweets made of almonds, in particular amêndoas tipo francês (pink and white sugared almonds), amêndoas lisa cores (sugared almonds of other colours), amêndoas de chocolate or cláudias (chocolate-covered almonds) and amêndoas torradas or caramelizadas (caramelized almonds). Almonds are a symbol of fertility and renewal and to Catholics are a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
A gift is traditionally given by a godparent to their godchild on Easter Sunday in return for the gift the godchild has given them on Palm Sunday and this gift usually takes the form of something sweet, whether it be a folar, pāo de ló (sponge cake) or almond sweets, however, these gifts are not just exchanged between godparents and their godchildren, but among friends and family. Segunda-feira de Páscoa (Easter Monday) isn’t a public holiday in Portugal, but it won’t be long until another Portuguese public holiday comes along!
Dates of Easter Sunday up to 2029: 21 April 2019 12 April 2020 4 April 2021 17 April 2022 9 April 2023 31 March 2024 20 April 2025 5 April 2026 28 March 2027 16 April 2028 1 April 2029
Carnival or Entrudo (Shrovetide), as it is more commonly referred to in Portugal, is a festival ranging from the Friday before Lent to Quarta-feira de Cinzas (Ash Wednesday) which takes place in February or March. The weather is usually cold and often wet, even in the south of the country, and as a result in many places you may not see the stereotypical carnival scenes of samba dancers in minimalist costumes and extravagant floats. Carnival celebrations in Portugal are very unique to the country and, more specifically, unique to the various regions where they take place. Many of the celebrations originate from pagan times when it was believed that at the end of the winter evil spirits needed to be driven out so that spring could return and carnival was a celebration to drive out these spirits and herald a return to fertility. It also marked the start of a period with very little food as the winter stocks were running out or going off and food wouldn’t be available again until the spring. In Christian times it became a period of over-indulgence before the 40 days of abstinence during Lent. It is generally thought that the word ‘carnival’ is from the Latin carnem levāre (to stop eating meat), so before the period of abstinence begins, meat is enjoyed in dishes such as the popular meat-based feijoada, a hearty stew of pork (using all parts of the pig!), sausage and white or red beans, which is eaten in all regions of the country during Shrovetide. Throughout the country Shrovetide has certain recurring themes: there is a lord of misrule who on the last day of carnival is tried and sentenced to death; people play practical jokes on other people; the villagers and townsfolk dress up in costumes; those in authority are mocked; and there is music, dancing and a feast.
In the north of the country there is a Celtic influence to the carnival celebrations which can be heard in the bagpipe, drum and fiddle music. Masked men known as Caretos, run through the streets and symbolic effigies are burned, such as in the Entrudo Chocalheiro in Podence in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of the country, where men dressed in vivid costumes run around the streets of the village on Domingo Gordo (the Sunday before Lent) and Terça-feira Gorda (Shrove Tuesday), accosting any women, old or young, and doing a strange dance which involves shaking the cowbells around their waist (chocalheiro describes a person wearing a cowbell). Their costumes of red, green and yellow wool, bright red masks, cowbells and wooden sticks represent the devil and on Shrove Tuesday an effigy of the devil is burnt on a bonfire.
A similar figure appears in the Entrudo dos Compadres in Lazarim, in the Douro region, where men wear enormous carved wooden masks often with horns coming from the top designed to look frightening, along with costumes similar to those in Podence, often made of natural-coloured wool, straw, foliage or even lace. In both places the masks hide the person’s identity and allow them to behave badly. A popular proverb sums this up: ‘É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal!’ (It’s carnival, no one will be offended!). In the preceding weeks the compadres (the young men of the village) are pitted against the comadres (the young women of the village) in various rituals which subvert traditional male and female roles and revolve around the carnival preparations, including making costumes, creating effigies and writing verse poems. Masks made from alderwood by artisan wood carvers are begun months before. It’s not altogether surprising that these subversive traditions were banned during the years of the dictatorship, as were all pagan festivals. The main event is on Shrove Tuesday when everyone gathers in the village square to watch a piece of theatre in which a young man and woman of the village stand on a balcony with two effigies of a male and female figure behind them (representing the compadres and comadres) and read their ‘wills’ which are verse poems poking fun at members of the opposite sex. Each four-line verse is punctuated by a drum being beat and the ringing of cowbells. People carrying the effigies then lead a procession to an area when the effigies are attached to a wire and set alight. Fireworks inside the effigies explode and they spin around like a Catherine wheel before fizzling out. This marks the end of the Entrudo.
In Lindoso in the very north of the Minho region (close to the border with Galician Spain) the celebrations revolve around the funeral of Pai Velho (the Old Father), a life-size mannequin of a man who represents winter. Pai Velho sits atop a decorated cart pulled by oxen followed by another cart with a structure of reeds, straw and branches and decorated with flowers representing spring. On the Sunday before Lent the procession makes its way through the village making stops at certain points where satirical sketches are performed, followed by a traditional dance. On Shrove Tuesday the procession goes through the village again, with more sketches and dancing and the appearance of a number of people known as ‘sweepers’ who have sticks with old rags on the bottom which they dip in water and brush along the villagers’ feet to scare away the evil spirits. That night the Enterro do Pai Velho (the funeral of the Old Father) begins with a mock funeral with a Mass and mourning followed by his cremation. Finally there is a public gathering where the villagers have the opportunity to voice any grudges.
In the Aldeias de Xisto (Shale Villages) of Goís, Ponte do Sótão, Comareira, Aigra Nova, Aigra Velha, Pena and Cerdeira in the Serra da Lousã near Coimbra a very traditional Shrovetide celebration called the Corrida do Entrudo (Shrovetide Race) involves dressing up in devilish masks made from cork decorated with horns and teeth from dead animals and old clothes (the older the better) and running from village to village playing practical jokes and chanting humorous verses about the people of the other villages. The men dress up in women’s clothes and the women dress up as men. In addition to the masks and the old clothes, they also carry anything that makes a noise, such as a bell or rattle, which are used to punctuate the verse poems, and they carry oak apples which they will throw at the other villagers. Some revellers also carry traditional instruments such as a concertina, a drum or a scraper, which accompany a communal meal and traditional dancing.
The Torres Vedras carnival (approximately 50km north of Lisbon) which runs from the Friday before Lent to Ash Wednesday is known as ‘o Carnaval mais português de Portugal’ (the most Portuguese carnival in Portugal) and preparations begin 12 months in advance. Many of the satirical traditions date back to the 1920s, beginning with the crowning of the carnival King and Queen (both played by men) on the Friday who receive the key of the city from the mayor. The carnival continues with a themed parade consisting of matrafonas (men dressed up in a satirical depiction of women), carnival floats decorated with cabeçudos (figures with enormous papier mâché heads which are often caricatures of famous politicians and celebrities), gigantones (giants: huge figures, up to four metres in height, with a papier mâché head on a frame covered in clothes designed to look like a human body and worn by a person who can control the movements so that it looks like the gigantone is walking in the parade), and Zés Pereiras bands (groups of drummers energetically playing snare drums and bass drums in the parade).
The party atmosphere is added to by the throwing of cocotes (small paper parcels which until recently were filled with rubber shavings and sawdust, but now have been replaced by a cleaner version) between the people on floats and the crowd. On Ash Wednesday the Enterro do Entrudo (Funeral of the Carnival Period) is a scene that is acted out on a stage outside the law court where the King is condemned for his misrule during this period. An effigy of the King is exploded with fireworks representing the end of the carnival and a return to order.
In Canas de Senhorim the carnival traditions go back three hundred years when people from the aristocratic neighbourhood of Paço and the neighbourhood of Rossio, where the commoners lived, were given permission to criticise each other during Shrovetide. In the past it began in January when people started playing practical jokes on their neighbours such as a panelada which involves throwing an earthenware pot full of ashes and gallnuts into their houses or a pisão where a stone is attached to the door of a neighbour’s house by a string which when knocked against the house forces the owner to answer the door and find no-one there. Nowadays carnival starts on the Sunday before Lent when the two neighbourhoods parade through the streets and sing loudly at each other as a practice for the main parade on Shrove Tuesday. On the Monday before Lent the farinhada tradition occurs when any young woman leaving the house before midday is in danger of being covered with flour. The Monday afternoon is known as Segunda-feira das Velhas (Monday of the Old [Days]) or Dia da Crítica (Day of Criticism) when songs from the past are sung and parades with reference to the past take place and each neighbourhood makes fun of the other’s carnival floats and costumes. On Shrove Tuesday groups from Paço and Rossio parade through the streets of their respective neighbourhoods to a place where the two districts intersect, where they face each other in a despique (a singing competition). The winner is the group that displays the most joviality. The carnival ends on Ash Wednesday with the batatada (potato feast), a meal consisting of cod, potatoes, egg and cabbage, followed by the mock funeral mass for the carnival clown, who is then paraded through the streets where he is ceremoniously burnt.
The Carnival of Cabanas de Viriato, not far from Canas de Senhorim has, as part of its celebrations, a dance dating from the 1860s with the intriguing name of Dança dos Cús (Bum Dance). It is a dance where the people taking part in the carnival procession bump hips in a dance done to a waltz tempo played by a brass band. Even the cabeçudos join in!
The major carnival in the Lisbon region is in Loures (north of the city of Lisbon). The carnival dates back to 1934 when it was started by a group of entertainers known as cegadas (a group of carnival masqueraders whose name comes from the idea that they beg like blindmen in the street) who performed satirical songs and verse that mocked a local celebrity. This tradition continues today, along with other features which include the coronation of the king and queen, the Baile Trapalhāo (Fool’s Ball, a masked-ball where everyone is encouraged to wear an unusual mask), a themed procession with decorated floats, groups in colourful costumes and the Mastronças do Moulin Rouge (Brutes of the Moulin Rouge: a large group of men who, as the name suggests, inelegantly dress up a women), and ending with the Enterro do Rei do Carnaval (Funeral of the Carnival King, also known as Enterro do Bacalhau (Funeral of the Cod, presumably named after the dried, salted cod which will be a staple food during Lent; a similar mock-funeral of the cod is held in some places on Easter Saturday to celebrate the end of Lent)) where King Ocarário, the carnival king, is tried at a satirical hearing and sentenced to a death that is followed by a fireworks display.
A little touch of Rio glamour and a lot of Portuguese irreverence
With all these celebrations taking place across the country it is surprising that Shrove Tuesday is not one of the official public holidays, while the little-celebrated Republic Day on 5th October is. Instead it is an optional holiday which means that it is at the discretion of the employer (or local authority for public sector workers). However, most people do take the day off, for carnival is part of the Portuguese psyche and as the Portuguese saying goes, ‘A vida são dois dias, o Carnaval são três!’ (Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!).
Until recently, in many parts of the country, the period before Lent was marked by people throwing items such as flour, eggs and water at each other. In Ovar (south of Porto) they celebrated Carnaval Sujo (Dirty Carnival) up to the 1950s, in which people threw anything they could get their hands on, ranging from coal dust to sawdust, for an exact period of 60 minutes. This tradition was replaced with carnival parades and nowadays many towns have started to include elements of the Rio de Janeiro carnival with colourful floats and samba dancers, but they are usually combined with the Portuguese traditions of political jokes and satire (that became popular after the 1974 revolution), the coronation of the king and queen and the ultimate denunciation and burial of the king, and alongside the Samba schools are groups of passerelles (dancers) and apeados (groups with elaborate costumes and scenery, often irreverent), who take part in the parade and compete to be the best in their category in the carnival. Each carnival has an annual theme, often linked to an aspect of Portuguese culture or history (‘Made in Portugal’, ‘Seas and Oceans’, ‘The Big Shipwreck’, ‘The Great ‘Geringonça’’ (geringonça meaning ‘contraption’ is the dismissive term the right-wing used to describe António Costa’s left-wing coalition government when it formed in 2015)); Nazaré’s carnival (a coastal resort in the Centro region) always has a themed linked to a Nazarene saying written in dialect. There is always a children’s parade, usually on the Friday before Lent, where children of the local schools parade in costumes to a theme. The biggest carnival in the Algarve region is in Loulé (north-west of Faro) where the whole town is closed off for the duration. Running for over 100 years, it claims to be the oldest carnival in the country (although the Moncarapacho carnival (near Olhão, east of Faro) is actually older, dating from 1899, the Loulé one is said to be the first carnival which included carnival floats in the parade). The carnival procession has a good mixture of Rio-style samba groups and Portuguese-style satire (mocking politicians and celebrities from the world of sport and television), particularly through the aforementioned cabeçudos and gigantones. Other Rio-style carnivals can be seen in Ovar, Sines (on the Alentejo coast), Elvas (near the Alentejo border with Spain), Mealhada and Estarreja (both in the Aveiro district), Nazaré, Sesimbra (south of Lisbon) and Alcobaça (near Nazaré, which claims to have the most Brazilian carnival in Portugal).
Dates of Shrove Tuesday up to 2029: 5 March 2019 25 February 2020 16 February 2021 1 March 2022 21 February 2023 13 February 2024 4 March 2025 17 February 2026 9 February 2027 29 February 2028 13 February 2029
Although there are only 13 official public holidays in Portugal it sometimes seems as if there are more. This is partly due to the fact that events which aren’t technically public holidays are celebrated as if they were, such as Carnival (Shrove Tuesday) in February or March, and partly due to the vast number of patron saints’ days or the commemoration of regional historical events throughout the country which are celebrated as local holidays. The popular saints’ days in June bring a month of holidays in various regions of the country, starting with the Festa de Santo António (Feast of Saint Anthony) in Lisbon celebrated on 12 and 13 June, followed by the Festa de São João (Feast of Saint John) in Porto and Braga on 23 and 24 June and the Festa de SãoPedro (Feast of Saint Peter) in Póvoa de Varzim, Bombarral, Castro Verde, Felgueiras, Macedo de Cavaleiros, Montijo, São Pedro do Sul, Sintra, Seixal and Évora on 28 and 29 June. In addition, every village and town has its own dedicated day at some point during the year which is honoured with traditional festivities.
The 13 official holidays are very important to the Portuguese and when four of them (Corpus Christi, Republic Day, All Saints’ Day, and Restoration of Independence Day) were abolished by the then Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, in 2012, as an attempt to increase productivity during the financial crisis, it was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation of Passos Coelho’s government. One of the first things that António Costa did when he became Prime Minister in 2015 was to reinstate these four holidays. Each public holiday is celebrated on the day it falls, even if it falls on a weekend. However, if it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday many people take the opportunity to have an extra-long weekend by taking a day off on the Monday (if it falls on a Tuesday) or the Friday (if it falls a Thursday), known as a ponte (‘bridge’), or occasionally being given a tolerância de ponto (an official day off given to public-sector workers and schools) between the public holiday and the weekend. One of the highlights at the start of the new year is looking at a calendar to see how many long weekends and ‘bridges’ there are in the year ahead.
The following are the 13 official public holidays observed throughout the country:
Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on national and local public holidays (this also includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops and restaurants in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.
The first time I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Portugal (A Passagem de Ano, also sometimes known as Réveillon or Véspera de Ano Novo) it is amazing that I made it through the following year, as, according to Portuguese tradition, I did everything wrong. I ate chicken for dinner on New Year’s Eve, wore a coat with a button missing, had no money in my purse and toasted the new year with water (as I had to catch a very early flight the next morning). Since then Portuguese friends have advised me on how to celebrate New Year’s Eve properly in order to achieve success and happiness in the year ahead.
For many people the night begins with a family dinner of seasonal food similar to that of Christmas, including the ubiquitous bolo rei (king cake), followed in the early hours of the new year with a sustaining bowl of caldoverde (a comforting soup made of potatoes and a green leafy vegetable similar to kale, usually served with slices of chouriço in it). At midnight most towns and cities have a firework display, and often have live music in the main square. The best places to celebrate New Year’s Eve are Lisbon (in Terreiro do Paço), Porto (on Avenida dos Aliados), Coimbra (in the lower part of the city), Albufeira (on Praia dos Pescadores) and in Funchal on the main island of Madeira (which has one of the biggest fireworks displays in the world).
Throughout Portugal most people, young or old, still observe a few simple customs:
At midnight everyone eats 12 raisins, one at each stroke of the clock, and makes a wish with each raisin.
The new year is toasted with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine, based on the notion that alcohol brings health and vitality.
People hug and kiss their loved ones at midnight, to bring them luck throughout the year, and wish them Feliz Ano Novo, Próspero Ano Novo, Bom Ano Novo or Boas Entradas.
But unlike Christmas, which is based around Christian traditions, scratch beneath the surface and on 31 December you will find people upholding New Year’s Eve superstitions and rituals that go back to pagan times, particularly among the older generations in rural areas. Many of the rituals are focussed on ensuring that wealth is achieved in the year ahead, such as the following which are all believed to attract money.
Eat chocolate on New Year’s Eve.
Keep a bay leaf in your wallet throughout the year.
Put a bank note in your right shoe on New Year’s Eve and then use this note for your first purchase of the new year.
Ensure there is money in your pocket or wallet on New Year’s Eve, so that you don’t start the new year with no money, as this state will last throughout the year.
Stand on a chair with money in your hand (to symbolize a promotion or rise in status in the new year) and then come down with your right foot first, or climb onto a chair with your right foot first with money in your hand. These both mean you start the new year with money which is thought to attract more money.
Throw money into the house or up into the air at the stroke of midnight to bring about wealth to all who live there.
Wear yellow underwear to encourage financial success in the coming year.
Avoid wearing clothes that are dirty, torn, coming unstitched, have buttons missing or are too tight-fitting to avoid financial problems.
Dance around a tree at midnight.
Many other rituals at the stroke of midnight are based around getting rid of the bad spirits of the past year.
Hop on your right leg three times at the stroke of midnight with a glass of champagne in your hand, without spilling it, and then throw the champagne over your shoulder without looking behind you to get rid of all your problems from the past year. It will also bring luck to the people whom the champagne lands on!
Bang pots and pans out of the window at midnight to make as much noise as possible. Nowadays fireworks have the same effect.
Turn on all the lights and open all the doors in the house so that the old year can leave and the new year can enter, then at midnight go outside and re-enter the house with your right foot first.
Have a clean house, replacing anything that doesn’t work and throwing away old crockery and other broken items to rid the house of negative energies. In the past people used to throw broken vases and crockery out of the window into the street below, but nowadays people maintain this tradition by throwing streamers and confetti.
There is also a desire for harmony in the family in the new year brought about by yet more rituals.
Put new bed linen on the bed on New Year’s Eve to ensure a happy love life in the ensuing year.
Avoid arguments on New Year’s Day, to keep familial peace in the year ahead.
Other customs are based on a desire for good luck, health and happiness in the new year.
Avoid eating chicken as the last meal on New Year’s Eve, as it is believed that eating chicken will make happiness in the year ahead fly away.
Choose the colour of the underwear you wear on New Year’s Eve based on what you want to achieve in the year ahead. Blue underwear is thought to bring good luck, white will bring peace, green will bring good health, red is for love, brown will bring career success and, as mentioned above, yellow underwear will bring financial success.
Wear new clothes on New Year’s Day to represent a new start to the year ahead.
Keep the champagne cork from the bottle of champagne for the entire year to come to renew your strength.
Swim in the sea on New Year’s Day as it is said to renew the body and soul at the start of the year.
So, this New Year’s Eve at midnight I’m going to cover all the bases and will be hopping on my right leg three times with money in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, then will throw the money up into the air while eating 12 raisins and banging my pots and pans. I’m not superstitious, but you never know …!
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.
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’).
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.
Classic cars lined up for the Saint Anthony weddings, Lisbon
The Saint Anthony brides walking towards the classic cars
A Saint Anthony bride and her maid of honour on the way to the cathedral
The Saint Anthony brides entering Lisbon 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!’).
Banda de Música da Carris brass band, Saint Anthony weddings, Lisbon cathedral
The Saint Anthony brides and grooms outside Lisbon cathdral
The Saint Anthony brides and grooms outside Lisbon cathdral
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 Saint Anthony brides and grooms at the statue of Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony’s church, Lisbon
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 ACanção 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.
Marcha Infantil ‘A Voz do Operário’ with madrinha (Debora Monteiro) and padrinho (Rui Melo), Marchas Populares, Lisbon
Marcha dos Mercados, Marchas Populares, Lisbon
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. Although the sardine is the food most associated with the Saint Anthony festivities, other Portuguese street food is in demand at this time, including febras (slices of grilled pork), bifanas (bread rolls filled with pork), caldo-verde (soup made with potatoes and a green leafy vegetable similar to kale), grilled chouriço (a spiced sausage) and snails, along with the ubiquitous sangria.
Street party, Calçada do Lavra, Lisbon
Typical Saint Anthony decorations, Lisbon
Food fair, Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, Lisbon
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!
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.
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.
Stall selling Saint Anthony souvenirs, Saint Anthony’s church, Lisbon
Saint Anthony’s bread
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.
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.
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, often followed by music, food and wine.
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. While in the eastern Algarve there are musical groups known as Charolas who sing Janeiras accompanied by the distinctive sound of castanets, giving the Janeiras a very different sound to those in the north of the country.
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.
Broas de mel
Salame de chocolate
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 bolorainha (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.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa da Imaculada Conceição) is a religious holiday to celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary, who Catholics believe was born without original sin, and in Portugal it is also a public holiday. For Portuguese Catholics the day has special significance, as Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) is the patron saint of Portugal. She was first chosen to be the country’s patron saint by Queen Isabel (who later became Saint Isabel Queen of Portugal) in 1320, who made the Immaculate Conception a day of celebration, but it wasn’t until 1646 that King João IV officially proclaimed Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception the patron saint of Portugal. 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.