Portugal is a country with deep-rooted traditions and its Christmas traditions are no exception. If you’ve spent time in Portugal you will notice how strong the family values are here and Christmas celebrations reflect this, being mostly close-knit, family affairs.
As a Catholic country, many of the Christmas traditions have their roots in the Catholic religion, and the religious importance of this period can be seen across the country. Many of the festive celebrations have been passed down over generations, but like a lot of countries, Portugal has also adopted traditions from across the world.
Here are some of the ways in which Portugal celebrates the festive season and some of the things you’re likely to see over the Christmas period.
Main Christmas Celebrations
Christmas Eve is a particularly important event in Portugal. On the 24th of December, families gather to celebrate and share dinner together. This meal is known as the Consoada. It usually consists of bacalhau (salt cod) with potatoes, eggs, vegetables and is sometimes accompanied by boiled octopus. Many families also attend Missa do Galo, or midnight mass. Gifts are usually exchanged on Christmas eve as well, with some choosing to do so after dinner and others waiting until after midnight.
Often the leftovers from the Consoada are used the next day to prepare the dish Roupa Velha, which translates to “old clothes”. The leftover bacalhau, vegetables and egg are fried in garlic and oil and served for lunch, or as a starter before the main meal.
It’s a long-held tradition to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve, instead opting to eat meat dishes like turkey, pork or lamb on Christmas Day. The meat on Christmas Day is roasted and served with potatoes and vegetables.
Something you will see pop up in stores and bakeries across the country at Christmas time is Bolo Rei or “King Cake”. It’s traditionally eaten on Christmas day and January 6th, to celebrate Dia de Reis (Three Kings Day). The recipe for Bolo Rei was derived from the French Gâteau des Rois and was brought to Portugal during the 19th century.
This cake has a dough that’s similar to brioche, and it’s filled with plenty of dried fruit, with crystallized fruit cuts as toppings. It’s meant to symbolise the gifts from the three kings, with the crystallised fruits representing myrrh, the scent from spices representing frankincense and the golden crust symbolising gold.
For those that aren’t fond of ultra-sweet cakes, Bolo Rainha, or “Queen Cake”, is also a popular choice. Bolo Rainha is made using the same recipe but without the crystallised fruit and with more almonds and walnuts.
Other popular festive treats include Rabanadas, which are similar to French toast, and are sometimes made with Port wine. Sonhos and Filhós are also seen a lot over the Christmas period. These are small doughnuts covered in sugar and cinnamon and can also be made with pumpkin. Filhós are larger and flatter versions of Sonhos.
Nativity Scenes or Presépios
Nativity scenes are displayed in so many different places in Portugal in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Some are small and understated, and others are huge scenes set up in the street for passersby to enjoy.
There are also live nativity scenes in many parts of the country. In fact, Europe’s largest live nativity scene is held in the village of Priscos in Braga. The stage covers 30,000 square meters, and there are more than 90 sets and 600 extras.
Each year, Lisbon lights up its streets with more than two million bulbs across 210 kilometres. One of the most famous displays is in Praça do Comércio, where there is a large Christmas tree put up each year. In Porto, more than 80 locations around the city are lit up at Christmas, including Porto’s Botanical Garden.
Whilst the bigger cities put on some incredible Christmas displays, many smaller towns put a tremendous amount of effort into their Christmas lights and decorations, so you can see towns and cities all over the country light up from the end of November. During the festive season, Christmas markets pop up across the country where you can find stalls selling jewellery, clothing, crafts and ornaments.
In the north and centre of Portugal there are many towns and villages that light bonfires at midnight on Christmas Eve, or in the days before. These fires burn throughout the night, sometimes even into the New Year.
This is part of an old tradition, where wood used to be cut on December 7th and transported the following day into the centre of the village. This tradition symbolises the triumph of light over darkness and the thought is that the longer the fire burns, the better the New Year will be.
One of the more unusual Christmas traditions is held in the city of Braga. Three decades ago, the owner of the “Casa das Bananas”, Manuel Rio, wanted to attract more customers to the banana warehouse. He set up a small stall where he would offer glasses of Muscat and when customers wanted something to eat alongside their drinks, they'd be offered a banana.
The owner’s son, Jorge Rio, then began his own tradition where on Christmas eve, he’d organise a small gathering where friends and customers would drink Muscat wine and eat bananas before the Christmas Eve meal. This tradition grew and grew over the years until people from all over the town would come to “Bananeiro” to meet with friends and family on Christmas Eve. This tradition is still strong in Braga today.
Are you Spending Christmas in Portugal?
The festive season is a wonderful time to be in Portugal, and even though the weather might be milder than many of those reading this might be used to, the country is still brimming with Christmas spirit.