Christmas has always been an important holiday in Portugal, a time for everyone to come together around the table and share the warmth of this holiday season, regardless of one's religious beliefs. It is also a time for celebrating ancient old traditions and the love the Portuguese have for food and spending quality time with friends and family.
From North to South, during this time of the year Portugal is filled with Christmas cheer, with towns illuminated by Christmas lights and shop windows decorated with reindeer, holly and presents to share the love.
Such as in English, in Portuguese presents are also called “presentes” and it means exactly the same: I want to be “present” in your life. The tradition of offering presents is the same as many other places in the world, with families gathering together on Christmas Eve to share a special dinner. Some families open their presents after midnight, others prefer to wait for Christmas morning, reuniting around the tree and children’s laughter to open what Santa – or baby Jesus (“o menino Jesus”) – has left for them.
Christmas Food in Portugal
But before opening presents there is another tradition that is equally (or even more!) important whilst celebrating Christmas in Portugal: food!
Although Portuguese culinary Christmas traditions differ from North to South, there are several items that are mandatory, such as the famous Bolo Rei, the king (“rei”) of cake (“bolo”), a round fruit cake richly filled and decorated with nuts and crystalised fruit and covered with powdered sugar.
Variations of the traditional Bolo Rei include the Bolo Rainha (Queen Cake), which is similar but without the crystalised fruit, as well as more creative versions with chocolate and apple cinnamon.
Other traditional Portuguese Christmas desserts include:
Rabanadas (also known as fatias douradas)
For Christmas Eve dinner – known as “Consoada” – the most traditional dish is “Bacalhau com couves”: boiled salted cod with cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables, drizzled with the best quality Portuguese olive oil.
Other popular Christmas Eve dishes in Portugal include octopus (“Polvo”), roasted lamb (“cabrito assado”), or turkey (“peru”), traditionally expensive dishes that are saved for special occasions. In the past, when Portugal was amongst the poorest countries in Western Europe, Christmas was one of the few times during the year when people would eat meat, a feast for the stomach which attests to the importance this day has always had in Portuguese culture.
Religious traditions of Christmas in Portugal
Being the majority of Portuguese people Catholic, the religious significance of this holiday is also very much present.
Many families still maintain the tradition of setting up a nativity scene, which is traditionally built with fresh moss and a wooden hut to place the ceramic figures of St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, lying on a bed of straw and surrounded by the manger animals that kept him warm during the longest night of the year.
The most complete nativity scenes also include the Three Wise Men and the shepherds with their flocks, a living memory of one of the world's most famous stories which has delighted Portuguese children for centuries, long before modern-day Christmas trees and the bearded Coca-Cola version of Santa Claus (in Portuguese: Pai Natal) reached the country.
Another popular Christian tradition is the Midnight mass, known as “Missa do Galo” (Mass of the Rooster), which is still celebrated in many parishes throughout Portugal. Families join together in this special mass that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, a ceremony where the cold of the night is no match for the warmth of each community’s faith and welcoming embrace.
On Christmas Day there is also mass in the morning and afterwards, neighbours join in the church squares to wish each other happy holidays and distribute invitations to meet again in the afternoon, sharing not only each family's food but conversations and laughter enjoyed over a good glass of Port wine or traditional Portuguese liqueurs.
How to celebrate Christmas in Portugal
Celebrating Christmas in Portugal, as a visitor or as a resident, is always a memorable experience as this is one of the happiest times of the year! In Portugal’s main cities the streets and buildings are decorated with Christmas lights and giant trees, with plenty of holiday events, fabulous restaurants and lots of sunshine to enjoy a day out with the family. Even in the coldest of Decembers, the Portuguese people’s generous hospitality will warm your heart!
If you do prefer a "white Christmas", in Portugal’s north and interior mountains, especially in Serra da Estrela, chances are you might get lucky as this region usually has snow this time of the year, enough for those who like to spend the holidays on the slopes!
However, to witness one of Portugal’s most unique traditions we recommend visiting towns where it is still common for the community to join together after the Missa do Galo. This tradition, known as “Madeiro de Natal” still takes place in some regions of Portugal such as Trás-os-Montes and Alto Alentejo. In the weeks before Christmas, locals come together to join wood in the town’s churchyard. In some places, this is announced by ringing church bells, and the tradition is often accompanied by joy-filled music and singing. The giant pile of wood is only lit after the Midnight Mass, joining together around the bonfire both young and old, neighbours, friends and family who drink and tell stories, maintaining a century-old tradition that is as bright and warm as the bonfire that burns all night!
Read more about Portuguese Culture & Traditions
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Regardless of where you are or how you celebrate this holiday season, be sure to be surrounded by loved ones and whatever makes you happy. Even if you don't "keep it Portuguese", remember to keep it simple... for the simple things are what truly matter most!