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Christmas in Portugal: A Complete Guide to Festive Celebrations

21 de December, 2022

Christmas in Portugal: A Complete Guide to Festive Celebrations

Did you know that Portuguese tradition includes not tidying up the table after the Christmas Eve dinner? And that they use natural pine trees at home? Discover what Christmas is like in Portugal.
Reading: 6 min

Spending Christmas outside your country can be a very interesting experience. The traditions, the food and the way of celebrating abroad are usually very different from what we know at home. In this article we will tell you how Christmas is celebrated in Portugal. This lovely country will surprise you at this time of the year…

How do the Portuguese celebrate Christmas?

Christmas is a very important celebration in Portugal, which is a predominantly Catholic country. About 80% of the population declare Catholicism as their religion. It is a traditional family celebration, bringing together several generations and sometimes very close friends.

As Portugal is located in the northern hemisphere, so Christmas takes place during winter, and depending on where you live, it can be quite cold and even snowy! In Porto (north), the temperature is around 8 degrees at night, and in Lisbon (further south), 13 degrees. It is therefore common for families to light their fireplaces and gather in the living room.

Due to the great local religiosity, some people do not miss the traditional Midnight Mass, celebrated in churches on Christmas Eve and also broadcasted on national TV.

Among younger people, it is also customary to leave the house after midnight to meet friends and attend trendy parties in discos and bars.

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Natural Christmas Pines!

Natural (real!) Christmas trees are usually present in many homes. Some nurseries (stores that sell plants) accept to receive these trees back after Christmas. Many of them reimburse the buyers with part of the amount paid, or guarantee to exchange the pine tree for other plants. Something that is excellent for the consumer, who saves money and is not obliged to take care of the plant throughout the year. And it is also great for the pine tree, which does not run the risk of being thrown away and, better yet, will be cared for by specialists.

According to National Geographic magazine, Christmas trees only arrived in Portugal in the 19th century. More precisely in 1844, through D. Fernando II, who was German. It took many years for the tradition to be assimilated, with the nativity scene being the main decoration of the season.

Portugal’s Santa Claus

The sweet, good old Santa, known internationally as Santa Claus, is called “Pai Natal” in Portugal. He also usually gives presents to the children. Many families try to put the children to bed before midnight, to preserve this Christmas mystery.

What is Christmas dinner like in Portugal?

Portugal is a country already famous for its gastronomy and abundant table, in any occasion. Every celebration in Portugal involves food and LOTS of it! The menu will depend a lot on the region where the party is, but there are some typical dishes.

Christmas Eve

The evening meal on the 24th is known as supper. On this day it is traditional to serve cod, in its various forms and ways of preparation, especially in a high cut, accompanied by vegetables and drizzled with plenty of olive oil.

There are those who serve octopus, in its versions “à lagareiro” or baked in the oven with baked potatoes.

The most usual meats on that night are roast kid (young goat) or lamb (young sheep).

In addition to the evening meal, it is common for families to get together again on the 25th for lunch. The leftovers from the night are transformed into creative and delicious dishes, such as Farrapo Velho, a kind of purée with shredded codfish leftovers, which is delicious and usually only eaten on this day of the year!

A curiosity: the Portuguese have the tradition of “not setting the table” after supper on the 24th. In other words, they keep the table set (or rather, untidy) all night long. The new dishes of the 25th join the sweets of the night before and the table remains set until the next day, in honor of the baby Jesus.

Christmas Desserts in Portugal

Since Portugal’s best known candy is the pastel de nata, many will be a little disappointed to learn that this is not the most present sugary delicacy on the Christmas table of the Portuguese people! See below the delicacies most present on Christmas tables.

Christmas Desserts
Bolo-rei, rabanadas and aletria: the sweet highlights of the party.

King Cake and Queen Cake

Actually, for the “dessert” category there are king and queen! We are talking about the King and Queen Cake, a homemade “cousin” of the panettone, round in shape, with a hole in the middle, topped with candied fruit and plenty of sugar. The “queen” version takes almonds instead of candied fruit and can also be filled with chila jam, a variety of pumpkin.

Rabanadas

Rabanadas are slices of sweet toasts, softened in milk and sugar, dipped in eggs and fried in hot oil and sprinkled with more sugar at the end. Also traditional in Brazil, here they can be accompanied by caramel syrup, lemon zest, and dried fruit.

Aletria

Have you ever had sweet noodles? Aletria is a type of very thin pasta, thinner than regular spaghetti, prepared with eggs, sugar, and cinnamon. The flavor is similar to rice pudding. It can be prepared with water or with milk. It is also very common on Christmas tables.

Formigos

This funny name is given to this typical transmontano candy. Also called Mexidos is composed of sugar, slices of bread or sponge cake, almonds or pine nuts, eggs, port wine and cinnamon.

What are the Christmas Markets in Portugal like?

Perlim is already a traditional event in the Christmas celebrations in Portugal
Perlim is already a traditional event within the Christmas celebrations in Portugal.

Christmas fairs and markets are very common throughout Europe, and Portugal is no exception. Some events have become part of the Christmas calendar, such as Perlim in Santa Maria da Feira, “The Largest and Smallest Father in the World” in Águeda, the Magical Christmas Center in Tomar, the Medieval Village of Óbidos, and Wonderland Lisbon. Besides these, there are many other events from north to south of the country.

In many cities, streets are adorned with special lighting, often switched on at the beginning of December. On this day, there are festivities, and in some municipalities, there are street choirs and even fireworks. Shop windows in street shops are decorated with lights and nativity scenes. Famous bakeries see long lines forming to buy King’s cake, rolls, and sponge cake. There are also Christmas villages, illuminated pine trees, Santa’s sleigh, and many small fairs where you can find handicrafts, clothes, food products, books, decorations, as well as sausages, fruits, preserves, toys, among other items.

In general, the Portuguese enjoy purchasing Christmas products like dried fruits and cheeses from traditional old shops and tend to support small traders. The quest for presents in street shops is as strong as in traditional shopping centers (though less so over time). The streets are crowded with people, even on rainy days.

There’s also the tradition of going to the circus. During this time, there’s always a wide variety of circus performances.

Christmas is, without a doubt, a very beautiful festival in Portugal. If you have not yet been to the country at this time of year, be sure to come and see it! And if you plan to live in the country, find out how our consultants can help you on your journey!

*Silvia Resende is a journalist at Atlantic Bridge. From Bahia, she arrived in Portugal in 2015 to build a new life together with her family. She has a degree in Communication from UFBa, in Brazil, and a Master in Communication Sciences from the University of Porto. She has worked as a TV host, reporter, event producer, public relations and tour guide in Porto. She loves to travel and to discover the cultural and natural heritage of each place she goes. She loves typical Christmas food and always gains a few extra kilos in this season.

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Author:

Atlantic Bridge

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