Christmas in Portugal
A Brief History
As part of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal and Spain share much of the same history. As with Spain, Christianity came to Portugal under the Roman Empire. Christianity was further solidified under Visigoth rule, but nearly extinguished in southern Portugal under Moorish rule. However, as with Spain, Christianity remained strong in the north where the ousted nobles put their plans for Reconquista into action. Ultimately, Portugal won its independence from the Moors 250 years before Spain.
Due to its long coastline, Portugal became a nation of explorers, seamen and cartographers. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 severed European trade routes to Asia, leading to a search for viable sea routes. The quest for alternate routes spurred an age of exploration -- the Age of Discovery. Portugal became a leading European power during this time.
Portugal became the first European power to exploit Africa for slaves and other goods. Despite their prowess as seamen and explorers, and Portugal’s early dominance in discovery, the country would eventually lose most of their lands and influence. Ironically, the king of Portugal’s refusal to fund Columbus’ first voyage (twice) meant that Portugal missed out on claims to most of the ‘New World.’ Today, there is only one country in the Americas where Portuguese is spoken. Portugal’s early influence led to a predominance of Christian belief in the handful of African nations where Portuguese is still the official language.
In 1497, five years after the Spanish moved to oust all Jews from Spain, Portugal followed suit. This meant the country lost many of their best merchants and thinkers. Centuries later, there were three waves of anti-church sentiment that arose in the early 18th, 19th and 20th century. This led to the abolition of the Inquisition, and secularization of education and daily life. Feelings of anti-clericalism became so prevalent at one point that the ringing of church bells was banned, as were many religious festivals. Eventually, church and state relations improved leading to the present more balanced state of freedom of religion that Portugal now enjoys.
Christmas in Portugal is similar to Spain. It is a time of family and friends, eating and singing. A common tradition is for families to gather around the Christmas tree and the presépio (the crèche or nativity scene) on Christmas Eve. Since Portugal is a predominantly Catholic country, attending Midnight Mass or ‘Missa do Galo’ is an important part of the Christmas Eve celebration as well.
The Ceia de Natal (Christmas Eve meal) is often comprised of Bacalhau (salted codfish) and cabbage, and traditionally comes after midnight mass. Presents are often exchanged on Christmas Eve at midnight. Christmas Eve is also usually the time in Portugal when Father Christmas arrives to fill the shoes of good children with toys and treats.
Various cakes and tasty treats also comprise part of the Christmas celebrations in Portugal. Desserts vary from region to region and may include fried filhos or fritters, rabanadas (often called Portuguese "French toast") and, of course, the traditional Bolo Rei or King Cake, which can be both a Christmas and New Year's Eve tradition.
When the Bolo Rei is served, family members wait to see who gets the surprises baked within, usually a coin or toy ring - and another "unlucky" surprise: a raw bean. Whoever gets the bean must buy or make the Bolo Rei the following year! On Christmas Day, meat is most often on the menu, customarily a big stuffed turkey which is followed by more holiday sweets.
Instead of writing to Santa, children in Portugal write to baby Jesus and ask Him for Christmas presents. In some households, children also set their shoes out on January fifth in hopes that the Three Wise Men will fill their shoes with plenty of small gifts.
The Portuguese Christmas log, or cepo de Natal burns on the hearth all through Christmas day while people enjoy a lingering consoda in Portugal. Consoda is a family get – together accompanied by a feast sized meal. Some families put out extra place settings in remembrance of family members who have recently passed away.
A tradition that Christians around the world enjoy at Christmas is caroling. This tradition, called "Janeiras" is a bit different in Portugal, because as groups of friends go from house to house singing, they are rewarded with various foods, like nuts, apples, chocolates or cured sausages.
Three Wise Men- Braga, Portugal
The festivities end on January 6, on "Dia de Reis" or King's Day, but not before a festive New Year's Eve celebration with spectacular fireworks everywhere, along with the traditional eating of 12 raisins, representing one wish for each month of the coming year. Feliz Natal is Portuguese for Merry Christmas!
Portugal is more Christian (97%) than Spain, but there is a need for more unity among the churches. Pray for more passion for the lost—churches should be sending missionaries to Portuguese-speaking nations who need help. Pray for more church plants and more education for those who are called to lead them.