In Portugal there are all sorts of Christmas traditions to enjoy, from the traditional Christmas tree to big fires, masks, chestnuts and even bananas. Today we tell you all about some of the most characteristic Portuguese traditions that have been celebrated over the years, as well as some additional interesting facts about Portuguese Christmas celebrations, and even though Christmas 2020 may be different due to the coronavirus pandemic, this won't stop us from getting into the Christmas spirit
Stick around and find out all you need to know about the festive season and how Christmas is celebrated in Portugal!
What is Christmas called in Portugal?
If spending Christmas or "Natal" in Portugal, you'll of course need to know how to wish everyone a Merry Christmas in the local lingo. Merry Christmas translates to Portuguese as “Feliz Natal” and although this is the most common way to express your Christmas greetings, you can also say “boas festas”. This literally means "happy holidays" and is more general, referring to Christmas and the New Year.
"Bananeiro” de Braga (Braga’s Banana Tree)
This is a relatively modern Christmas tradition in Portugal that started 40 years ago, when several friends gathered on the 24th of December at an old tavern called “Casa das Bananas”, in Braga. The idea was to wish everyone “Merry Christmas” while having a glass of Moscatel de Setúbal, accompanied by a banana.
The tavern was a fruit warehouse back in the day, so the owner and his son decided to serve their liquor with a banana, combining the two sides of the business.
Nowadays, people still gather at the pub every 24th December since it is almost mandatory to go to “Casa das Bananas” or “Bananeiro”, as most people call it, to have a glass of Moscatel and a banana, bought at the bar or brought from home. Only then, with a warm belly and to the sound of street music, can they walk home to have Christmas dinner with their families.
The Madeiros, Madeiros de Natal or Fogueiras do Galo are big fires that are traditionally lit voluntarily on Christmas Eve. Usually they are lit around midnight after the “Missa do Galo” mass and are supposed to burn all night.
This very old Portuguese tradition can be seen in cities across the north and centre of the country, especially in inland cities.
These impressive bonfires are a way to celebrate and welcome the sun, in line with the old pagan celebrations in honour of the Winter Solstice.
Caretos de Varge
The Caretos de Varge are part of an old tradition in Trás-os-Montes, specifically in the town of Varge, that celebrates the Winter Solstice.
Single village boys gather on the 24th to prepare everything for Christmas Day. On 25th December, they run around town dressed as Caretos, with pagan masks, jumping, screaming and teasing to create chaos and the idea that the cold is going away so that everyone can have fun again. Amidst all this they sing “loas”, songs that ridicule and critique the villagers and their ways, and they go from house to house eating their way through the offerings people make. At the end of the day, there traditionally is a race which finishes with a dinner and dance where the girls and boys of the town are reunited in a symbolic union.
The Pinheiro de Guimarães Christmas tree
In the cold, celebrations in honour of St. Nicholas take place and usually on the 29th of November there is a special ritual. Thousands of people from Guimarães and the Minho region gather around a bull cart that transports a very special load: a giant Christmas tree that is put up at the end of the night.
St. Nick is said to be the inspiration behind the commercial figure of Santa Claus and this specific tradition is the continuation of a custom started by the Saint Nicholas Brotherhood that organised a Christmas dinner every year.
The tree is cut at dawn, transported throughout the village and then decorated to the sound of traditional Portuguese Christmas music.
Magusto da Velha and the old lady's chestnuts
On 26th December in Portugal, this celebration takes place in memory of a wealthy old woman (Velha), whose name is unknown and who decided to donated chestnuts and wine to the townspeople in exchange for a prayer in her name during Christmastime.
Even nowadays, the day after Christmas every year, the people of Aldeia Viçosa go the church square to climb up the church tower. Once they are up there, tradition states that they must throw chestnuts (around 150kg of them) into the remains of the Madeiro bonfire that had been lit in the square.
The Town Hall offers wine to the people to accompany the roasted chestnuts and everyone spends the afternoon telling stories about Christmases past.
Viana do Castelo’s Christmas Tree
The city of Viana do Castelo prides itself on having the tallest Christmas tree in Europe, or so they say.
Every year, at the beginning of December, fearless young men dedicate themselves to climbing a centuries-old tree that is a couple of hundred metres tall and decorating it. It is a tough job, only adequate for those that like to live their lives on the line.
Every year, the tree stands in the same place, with thousands of people gathering and wanting to see it. Located by the Santa Luzia lift, on the corner of 25 de Abril Avenida with Rua Doutor Tiago de Almeida, it is a sight to behold and a true image of Christmas cheer.
Is Portugal warm at Christmas?
If you're planning to spend Christmas in Portugal, then the weather is another important factor to consider. During the winter and the festive period, Portugal is home to a mild climate and generally pleasant weather. Generally, the futher south you go, the warmer it is, with the Algarve (Portugal's southernmost region) being the warmest part of the country at Christmas. You can expect temperatures in the Algarve in December to reach a maximum of 18°C and an average minimum of 10°C.