Portugal Day is one of Portugal's most important national holidays. So much so that it is celebrated not only in Portugal, but all over the world, where several Portuguese communities come together to celebrate June 10th every year.
Officially known as Dia de Camões, de Portugal e das Comunidades Portuguesas ('Day of Camões, Portugal, and the Portuguese Communities'), it is a very special day for the Portuguese people, who honour Portugal's history and heritage.
What does Portugal celebrate on Portugal Day?
One thing Portugal Day celebrates is the death of Luís de Camões, Portugal's most famous poet and a national literary icon. However, since no one knows for sure the year of his birth, Portugal Day is celebrated on the date of his death, on June 10, 1580.
Luís de Camões is considered Portugal's greatest writer and poet. In fact, he has even been compared to William Shakespeare. Among his most famous works, the epic poem ‘Os Lusíadas’ (The Lusiads), first published in 1572, is considered a literary masterpiece and widely regarded as the most important work of Portuguese literature.
Camões’ poem focuses mainly on a fantastic interpretation of the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries, including some of Portugal’s most famous historical moments, such as the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
Frequently compared to Virgil's Aeneid, and written in Homeric fashion, ‘Os Lusíadas’ is often regarded as Portugal's national epic, much as Virgil's Aeneid was for the Ancient Romans, or Homer's Iliad and Odyssey for the Ancient Greeks.
Who Was Luís de Camões?
The truth is that we don't know much about the life of Luís de Camões. Although many biographers have attempted to find documents, there isn't much evidence about his life.
According to most biographers, Luís de Camões was born in Lisbon around 1524 or1525. This was when the Portuguese expansion in the east was at its peak. Some documents found show he was a member of the impoverished old aristocracy. Nevertheless, he was well related to the grandees of both Portugal and Spain.
While some believe Camões attended the University of Coimbra, this remains unproven. However, due to his writing, we may assume he followed regular studies.
During the 16th century, it was normal for young Portuguese aristocrats to live in Morocco. This country was at the time held by the Portuguese and it was where young aristocrats would start a military career or qualify for Royal favours. However, biographers don't know if these were the reasons that led Camões there or if he was in Morocco exiled.
Luís de Camões didn’t always follow the right path. In fact, some documents prove that Portuguese King João III pardoned him in 1553, when he participated in a street brawl in which a royal officer was assaulted. According to the pardon, Camões should go to India to serve the king. While some documents show he actually got to India, he didn't make his fortune there. After all, in his poetry, we can find multiple references to the injustices and bad luck he met with.
Diogo do Couto, a 16th-century Portuguese historian, found Camões in Mozambique. In his works, he mentions that he found “that great poet and old friend of mine” (Camões) stranded penniless in Mozambique and helped pay for his trip back to Lisbon.
In 1570, Camões returned to Portugal, where he published ‘Os Lusíadas’ at the beginning of 1572, in Lisbon. In July of the same year, the King granted him a royal pension for his service in India, but also for writing ‘Os Lusíadas’.
An interesting fact is that Camões seemed to have a unique personality. He didn't only lose one eye fighting, but was also shipwrecked off the coast of Vietnam. According to the legend, when this happened, he kept ‘Os Lusíadas’ dry by swimming with only one arm and keeping the other above water.
According to some documents, his mother survived him and at the time of his death, in 1580, she started receiving his pension. While no one knows the reason for his death, it is assumed his death was due to hardships and illnesses.
Since 1641, June 10 is a celebration of the life and work of Luís de Camões. However, only centuries later did this day also become a celebration of Portugal’s history.
The evolution of the celebration of Portugal Day
The first historical record of the festive nature of June 10 is a royal decree issued by D Luís I, in 1880, which declared the date a "National Feast Day and Great Gala" to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of Luís de Camões.
Following the legislative work after Portugal became a Republic in 1910, new national holidays were created to reflect the country's new political views. In 1919, June 10th was included in the list of national holidays, however its nature was changed throughout the following years by the dictatorial regime that controlled Portugal.
During the Estado Novo regime, which lasted until April 25th 1974, the holiday was known as “Day of Camões, of Portugal and of the Portuguese Race”.
In 1963, June 10th also became a tribute to the Portuguese Armed Forces, in a clear defence of the ongoing colonial war of that time and the Portuguese colonies the dictatorial regime of António Oliveira Salazar tried so hard to maintain.
In 1978, with Portugal embracing the democratic values so many fought for, the holiday was changed once again and adopted its current designation: Day of Portugal, Camões and of the Portuguese Communities.
Celebrating Portuguese communities around the world
The inclusion of Portuguese communities in this day’s honours is linked to the millions of Portuguese who emigrated during the last century, many fleeing from Portugal's impoverished rural areas in search of a better life and new opportunities.
Today, life in Portugal is much different from the hardships of the recent past, but Portuguese emigrants all over the world — many second and third generations of emigrant families — still celebrate their Portuguese roots and the heritage passed on to them from generations of proud ancestors.
Today, this Portuguese pride is celebrated by the millions of Portuguese descendants spread around the world, as well as the approximately 5 million Portuguese emigrants living outside of Portugal.
Some of the most famous international celebrations of Portugal Day include:
Canada: In Toronto, more than 200,000 Luso-Canadians celebrate this day with a week of festivities that culminate with the Day of Portugal Parade on Dundas Street, in the area known as 'Little Portuga'l. The parade ends near Trinity Bellwoods Park, where concerts, cultural events and various other activities take place. The Portugal Day Parade is Toronto's third largest street festival and was first celebrated in 1966.
United Kingdom: In London, the Luso-British also celebrate Portugal Day in places such as southeast London, in an area also known as ‘Little Portugal’.
Brazil: Portugal Day is celebrated in several cities in Brazil such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Many millions of Luso-descendants still live in Brazil, a once colony of Portugal.
USA: There are several Portuguese communities in the US that also celebrate Portugal Day. One of the most famous celebrations takes place in Newark, New Jersey, where annually there is a huge street festival and parade on Ferry Street celebrating the Portuguese people, language, and culture. This festival began in 1979 and has been going strong ever since.
The symbolism of the Portuguese Flag
Portugal Day is also an opportunity for many Portuguese to remember their rich history, most of which is present in the symbolism present in the Portuguese flag.
The main colours of the Portuguese flag are red and green. Before 1911, when Portugal was still a monarchy, the flag was very different, its main colours being white and blue. However, in this same year, when Portugal became a republic, a team was put together to come up with a new flag that could represent both the past and the future. This team included the writer Abel Botelho, the journalist João Chagas, and the painter Columbano Bordallo Pinheiro.
They designed a Portuguese flag with two new colours, green and red, which today are colours that symbolise Portugal.
The green on the left of Portugal's flag is a symbol of hope for the future, while the red at the right symbolises the blood lost by those who fought for Portugal to become a republic.
An interesting fact about the current Portuguese flag is that it was seen as controversial at the time, and its new colours weren't consensual. Many wanted the new flag to continue blue and white due to religious motivations. Another reason was that the green and red colours were linked to the Portuguese Republican Party. While the country had just changed from a monarchy to a republic, some Portuguese believed this party was getting free advertising.
The yellow Armillary Sphere & the Shield
In the middle of the Portuguese flag, two mais elements stand out: a yellow armillary sphere and a shield.
Also known as a spherical astrolabe, the yellow armillary sphere represents the navigation of the oceans during the Age of Discoveries. Since the Age of Discoveries was such a golden era for the country, the team who designed Portugal's new flag decided it should incorporate this element.
As for the shield, it sits on top of the yellow armillary sphere and inside it there are several different elements, each holding a specific meaning:
The shield represents the past Portuguese victories.
The seven yellow castles represent the castles that the Portuguese reconquered from the Moors.
The five smaller blue shields represent the five Moorish Kings killed by Afonso I.
The five white dots within each blue shield represent the five wounds of Christ.
Although not all Portuguese remember in detail these interesting elements of their national flag, it is with pride that they raise them on these festive days. And not only when Portugal's soccer team takes this national pride to new heights!
So the next time you see the green and red flags flying all over the country, don't forget the hope and sacrifice that are represented in these colours and the rich History that is behind the Portuguese people's national pride.
Feliz Dia de Portugal!