Festivals, From abstinence to 'aleluia': Lent and Easter celebrations in Portugal

From abstinence to ‘aleluia’: Lent and Easter celebrations in Portugal


Crucifixion scene, Bom Jesus do Monte church

Ash Wednesday and Lent

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.

Via-Sacra, Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

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).

Holy Week

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 wind instrument 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.

Easter Saturday

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.

Easter Sunday

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.

Easter food

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!

Feliz Páscoa!

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