With Catholicism being the largest religion in Portugal, Christmas is a deeply important celebration which runs through to Dia de Reis on the 6th January. Like much of Europe, Christmas Eve is almost more important than Christmas Day. During December, houses and streets are decorated with lights. Though Christmas trees have only been popular since the 70s, every family will have an elaborate nativity scene.
On the 24th, families gather for condoada, a big meal of cod, vegetables, eggs, boiled potatoes and luxurious extras like shellfish sometimes follow before visiting Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster). During the service, everyone kisses an image of the baby Jesus before its placed into the church’s nativity scene.
Before going to Mass, parents leave presents under the tree or in a shoe by the fireplace and place the baby Jesus into the nativity scene. When returning, children run in to see if the baby Jesus is there, a sign that presents will have been brought by Pai Natal (Father Christmas). Most of the presents are opened on Christmas Eve, but some are left for the following day. On the 6th January, more gifts are brought to children by the Three Kings.
Food is an important part of the celebrations throughout the festive holidays. The living room table is often adorned with nuts, cakes and biscuits. On Christmas Day, turkey is now commonly eaten, but traditionally lamb was served in the north and pork in the south. Desserts are popular in Portugal all year, but there is no better time to try them that Christmas. Filhós are sugary fried doughnuts, Rabanadas are similar to French toast and creamy rice pudding is widespread. Taking centre stage is the Bolo Rei (King Cake). Hidden within the cake is a broad bean and a little gift. While it’s lucky to find the gift, if you get the broad bean you will have to pay for the Bolo Rei next year.
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The celebrations don’t finish after Christmas Day. During the following weeks, family and friends go from house to house with the baby Jesus singing songs. They are promptly invited in for glasses of wine, cheese, nuts, and other goodies. Songs of thanks continue as they leave in thanks for their generous hospitality.
There are some interesting regionally traditions. In Penamacor, it was custom for men about to be conscripted into national serve to steal a large tree and burn it in the yard of the church. Though compulsory military service no longer exists, it’s a tradition that has stuck. Friends gather together to stay warm next to the bonfire and sing songs before Mass.
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