Portugal is a country of traditions and customs well rooted in the country’s culture. The Christmas season is no exception and there are numerous rituals that remain very much alive year after year. There are traditions that are repeated from north to south of the country, such as the nativity scene, the decorated tree, Santa Claus, the exchange of gifts at midnight, and codfish at Christmas dinner.
But there are also traditions that are typical of certain regions in Portugal and that can only be experienced there. Travel with us through the country imbued with the Christmas spirit and get to know the most curious and peculiar traditions of Christmas in Portugal.
Here are some:
1 - Caretos de Varge
The Caretos de Varge are part of the Festa dos Rapazes (Boys party) that celebrates the winter solstice and is an almost spiritual experience. Masked men, called caretos, spread absolute mayhem in the village of Varge , in Trás-os-Montes , rattling the women, this act symbolizing the return to the fertile land.
From the 24th to the 26th of December, the young people from the village return home to participate in this feast and keep the tradition alive. On December 24, a meeting of the unmarried boys is organized where they prepare in secret what will happen.
On December 25, after the Christmas mass, the boys appear dressed as Caretos , jumping, shouting and laughing to the sound of their rattles and a gaiteiro accompanied by a bombo and a caixa. The hay is thrown to the people, the girls are “achocalhadas”, the water from the fountains is scattered and the animals are provoked. Another tradition is the “cantar das loas” (praise singing), where people in the village are criticized or ridiculed for their behavior during the year.
2 - Bananeiro, Braga
In the city of Braga there is no Christmas without Bananeiro. One of the favorite traditions of the citizens of Braga started about 40 years ago when the merchants of Rua do Souto decided to gather at the door of Casa das Bananas, in the late afternoon of December 24, in order to wish “happy holidays” to acquaintances and strangers, accompanied by a glass of moscatel wine and a banana.
The habit of “eating a banana and drinking a banana” went from a social moment for a small group of friends and customers to a meeting point for all citizens of Braga on Christmas Eve. Nowadays, in the afternoon of December 24th the street is invaded by thousands of people to fulfill the ritual.
3 - Ceia de Natal ou Consoada(Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner)
It is almost inevitable that boiled codfish with potatoes and cabbage is not present on the Portuguese Christmas dinner table. However, there are regions of the country where the traditional dish is replaced by other delicacies. For example, in the Algarve, galo de cabidela is a much appreciated alternative to codfish.
In Beira Litoral, boiled octopus is served on the table of some families. In the Lisbon and Tagus Valley area, roast turkey is eaten on Christmas Eve. In Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, there is also octopus and in some homes, fried hake or fried congo is eaten.
In the Azores, besides the traditional bacalhau com todos, there is also chicken soup. There are also those who eat “torresmos” with yams and black pudding with sweet potatoes, especially on the island of São Jorge. In Madeira, you can find the typical kebabs of the island at the Christmas Eve table.
4 - Madeiro de Natal
In the interior of the country, Christmas is marked by the ceremony of the burning of the Log, during the night of December 24th. This tradition takes place mainly in the area from Trás-os-Montes to Alto Alentejo, covering localities in the districts of Bragança, Guarda, Castelo Branco and Portalegre.
The Madeiro consists of a big bonfire that is usually made in the churchyard, where the population gathers after Midnight Mass. The bonfire reaches the height of the church, burning all night until it is extinguished. The burning is preceded by the ritual of gathering wood and transporting it to the village, which takes place in different ways depending on the region. It is in Penamacor that the largest Christmas tree in Portugal is lit, which is associated with various Christmas activities.
5 - Caretos de Ousilhão
In the Transmontana village of Ousilhão, in the municipality of Vinhais, they also celebrate the boys’ feast in honor of Santo Estevão on December 24, 25 and 26. The feast includes the presence of the Caretos, who animate the village with their antics, mischief, and the rattling of their feathers, going around the village creating chaos among the population after masses and making their traditional rounds in search of offerings of sausages.
The Caretos thus maintain their role as the devilish figure that releases all the contained energies and announces a new year. The villagers prepare their houses with a table well filled with food and drink to welcome the village boys who represent the “good visitors” and the Caretos who represent the “bad visitors”.