A major Christmas tradition here is setting up the Creche, the representation of Christ’s nativity in the stable at Bethlehem. Catholicism is the main religion in Portugal and therefore the Creche is a very important part of the celebration. The materials for the Creche are traditionally collected by the children. While some families only display the three main figures, Infant Jesus, Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, many revel in displaying an elaborate scene with not only the three figures but also the Three Wise Kings, the shepherd and the sheep, complete with lakes (made with mirrors) and hills (made with stones, moss, and clay). On Christmas Eve Portuguese families gather around the Christmas tree and the Creche to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
During the holiday season towns are decorated with lights. In the days leading to Christmas, the Christmas tree is set up and decorated with beautiful items.Houses are decorated in a festive manner to celebrate the occassion. In every Portuguese house a piece of oak, known as the “Cepo de Natal” or the Christmas log, is kept burning on the hearth all through Christmas day.
According to the Portugese tradition, it is the Three Wise Men and not Santa Claus who is the gift-bringer. On 5th of January or Epiphany Eve, children keep their shoes along windowsills and doorways and fill them with carrots and straw. They do this because they are told that this act will lure the horses of the Three Wise Men to their household during the night and that they will then leave small gifts under the Christmas tree and treats in the shoes. Children wake up in the morning to collect the gifts and the goodies consisting usually of candied fruits and sweet breads. Some families put one shoe (sapatinho) of each child next to the chimney (since most of the kitchens in Portugal have one) or next to the fireplace instead of a stocking.
On the Christmas day morning a feast (Consoda) is held. They set extra places at the table for alminhas a penar (the souls of the dead). In some areas crumbs are left on the hearth for these souls, a custom that derives from the ancient practice of entrusting seeds to the dead in hopes that they will provide a bountiful harvest. In Portugal, it is popular custom to set extra places at table for dead souls. Souls are given food gift with the hope of doing well in future.
Many families attend the Midnight Mass (Missa do Galo) on Christmas Eve. Thereupon, they gather around the table and have supper (Ceia de Natal). The menu consists of codfish with boiled potatoes and cabbage. The dessert is mainly “filhoses or filhós” made of fried pumpkin dough, “rabanadas” (much like French toast), “aletria” (a vermicelli sweet with eggs) or “azevias” (round cakes made of a crust filled with a mixture of chick peas,
- Bolo Rei
sugar, and orange peel). Another traditional dessert is “Bolo Rei”, a fruitcake having two surprises in them. One is a little present like a fake ring, a little doll or a medal and the other is a raw broad bean. The person who gets the bean has to buy the “Bolo Rei” in the coming year.
On Christmas Day, people eat stuffed turkey for lunch and the traditional desserts. Caroling is quite popular here. On 25th December, carolers sing Christmas carols (called “Janeiras”) in the streets in some regions of the country. People wish to each other “Feliz Natal” or “Boas Festas”, which means “Merry Christmas” in Portuguese.
The festivities end on January 6, “Dia de Reis”.