Jingle bells, jingle bells, this is absolutely the best time of the year. The Portuguese already start thinking on Christmas in November, so you can imagine how important this date is for us. Check the details below so that you learn how to live this celebration like a local.
Christmas in Portugal
It’s time to celebrate and to decorate our big and dusty Christmas trees that has been waiting for this moment since last year in the garage. Normally there’s a crib with the Baby Jesus under the tree but those who are more ambitious tend to build a majestic crib with all the characters from the Catholic Bible that represent this date. The tree is probably the greatest element of this festive season so you better get ready and try to overcome your neighbour’s art. Yes, it’s quite a big thing here.
Everybody’s totally relaxed but anxious at the same time saying Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas) wherever they go. Winter in Portugal simply gets warmer and extraordinarily beautiful in this season.
On the Streets
Everybody knows it’s Christmas time when they walk on the streets and they see thousands of small and colourful lamps crossing the streets, and the kids with the happiest faces because they know that Santa Claus (“Pai Natal” in Portuguese) is preparing a large red bag with presents for the 24th of December.
It’s common to see people spending more money than usual and they really don’t care much about it because it’s part of the spirit and, most of the times, Christmas gifts are a good way to help someone – a friend who’s moving to a house; a teen who’s saving money for months to buy the last trend in technology; or even to give a very special gift to the other half. There are so many reasons to celebrate this time of the year and the Portuguese do it very well, because we really like it and it’s also an excellent opportunity to gather all our friends and family for a special and fat dinner.
Come to a Portuguese house – from North to South – and you will find a super rich table full of traditional desserts and the protagonist of the consoada served on a porcelain dish. The fish is king and on Christmas Eve supper, on the 24th of December, where everybody gets together at a large table and they’re ready to serve the family – normally from the oldest to the youngest – a nice codfish fillet with boiled potatoes and green vegetables with a generous serving of olive oil boiled with garlic and onion.
Apart from the codfish, in the North there’s another option the Portuguese may choose: octopus, or Lagareiro octopus, which is roasted on the oven and soaked in olive oil. It is just mouth-watering, isn’t it?
The Desserts and Pastries
After dinner, nobody leaves the table because the best part is yet to come – the desserts. In Portugal there is a huge list of desserts for this special time and the main spice is the cinnamon. The list includes rabandas (French Toast); bolo-rei (King’s Cake - if you eat the slice with the bean you’ll have to pay the next year’s cake); aletria (Sweet Angel Hair); sonhos (Choux Pastry Puffs); leite creme (Portuguese Egg Custard); arroz doce (Rice Pudding); filhóses (we could call them Portuguese Donuts); pão-de-ló (similar to Sponge cake); and many others. It’s a complete list prepared to sweeten your stomach on this lovely and cold night.
After the supper, at midnight, families go to the Midnight Mass, or Missa do Galo, which is definitely part of the Catholic tradition, but it’s open to everybody who wishes to see the crib with the Baby Jesus, and after the communion people move up to the alter to kiss the Baby.
Normally, songs of veneration accompany this last part of the ceremony. When the ceremony ends, people go back home and the tradition is to give the gifts, but some families choose to give them in the morning of the next day, but it’s up to you. Either way, who doesn’t like to receive gifts?
And… What About the Next Day?
Sure! The next day is finally Christmas day and the celebration must go on. Families get together to have lunch and open the last presents. These are real moments of joy, pure love all over the houses, and everybody knows that bedtime is going to be quite late on this day. Everything is closed in Portugal so families spend the whole afternoon eating the pastries, having long conversations at the table, and watching those typical Christmas movies that we already know by heart but never get tired of.
The 25th is the most relaxing day because nobody really cares if the dishes need to be washed or if the kids are wearing their pyjamas – this is absolutely a very delicious day.
As a catholic country, Portugal truly lives Christmas time. Saying “Feliz Natal” is more than a sentence, is a real wish of happiness to everybody. Everything has a meaning and we really like to make the most of it.
We all wish you a merry, merry Christmas!