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Celebrating Christmas in Portugal

Spending Christmas in a different country is a great way to get to know the culture. Those of us who are lucky enough to have holiday homes in Portugal know what a unique time of year it is and can’t wait to spend the holidays the Portuguese way!

Find a nativity

Some people complain that Christmas in Portugal isn’t Christmassy enough – after all, it’s often warm enough for the beach and a good dose of vitamin D. But one tradition really captures the spirit of the festive season and that’s the Portuguese love of the nativity or presépios.

You’ll find them everywhere from roundabouts to the roadside. And alongside Joseph and Mary you’re likely to find the local mayor, a few farmers and other cultural figures. Not surprisingly, Portugal is a Guinness World Record holder when it comes to amazing nativity displays.

Warm your hands on a Madeiro

This tradition dates back to the time when young men who were about to leave for compulsory military service would steal wood and compete to light the biggest bonfire outside the local church.

Over time the tradition became associated with Christmas and fires were lit to ‘warm the baby Jesus’s feet’ – the Madeiro is a popular place to gather and exchange gossip, sing songs and wish each other Feliz Natal after Midnight Mass.

Enjoy the lights

Portugal puts on some of the most magnificent displays of Christmas lights you’ll see anywhere, but one of the most unusual is found in the town of Agueda.

Following the success of the Umbrella Sky project, where colourful umbrellas were hung in every street, Agueda decided to hang white umbrellas decorated with Christmas lights for their festive celebration. The effect is nothing short of magical and well worth a visit.

Put out your shoes

Here’s one tradition that will seem familiar, even though Portuguese children leave out shoes rather than hanging their stockings on Christmas Eve.

It’s quite common in Europe that the main festivities take place on the 24th and Portugal is no different. Families decorate the house, giving pride of place to the nativity and attend Midnight Mass before opening their presents.

Dine like a king

The centrepiece of the festive feast is the Bolo Rei or king cake, a fruited sweet bread like a panettone topped with sparkling candied fruits. There’s also an undecorated version known as the Bolo Rainha or queen cake.

There are plenty of sweets and doughnuts to indulge in and a very unusual dessert created from sweetened egg yolks and shaped like an eel.

The main dish is Bacalhãu de Consoada, a mixture of salt cod, boiled potatoes and cabbage, eggs and lashings of local olive oil. Leftovers are served on the 25th alongside meat dishes like lamb or even turkey.

And to wash it all down some delicious vintage port and Ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur or Amarguinha made from almonds with a festive marzipan taste.

Sing a January song

The festivities last into the new year, with the singing of Janeiras or January songs, often known as Cantar os Reis and sung on the 6th January to celebrate the arrival of the three kings.

So why not make a few new traditions and give Christmas in Portugal a try?

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