12 days of Christmas – Portuguese style


We are often asked what Christmas in Portugal is like – and in many respects it is similar to the UK.

12 nativity scenes

As a Catholic country, there is one thing that you are guaranteed to find everywhere at Christmas time in Portugal, and that is a nativity scene (called a Presépio) Some of these are extremely elaborate and beautiful, and many shops and restaurants proudly display a nativity scene in their window:

Many towns also have a giant life-sized display in an empty shop, like this year’s nativity in Portimão.

We have also travelled to small villages and been amazed to find intricate and amazing nativity scenes – here is the one on the roundabout at Alte:

For the traditional Catholic believer, on Christmas Eve, people will go to church for the ‘Missa do Galo’ or ‘Mass of the Rooster’ service; where the image of the baby Jesus is brought out and everyone queues up to kiss it, before it is placed in the nativity scene.

11 Santa’s climbing

Another tradition you will see everywhere is Santa Claus – usually to be found scampering up the side of a building or patio – and known as Pai Natal. It must be confusing to be a small child in Portugal though as tradition says that the presents are brought by the newborn Jesus – the ‘Menino Jesus’ – so I am not sure what role Santa actually plays out here.

10 deserted beaches

There are so many beaches along the Algarve – if you know where to go, you can find peace and quiet even in August – but at this time of year you are spoilt for choice. Crashing waves, huge blue skies, soft sand, and some haunting seagulls are often your only company.

9 Presents 

Christmas definitely means presents in Portugal – even in a recession. According to the Deloitte Christmas Survey 2011 the Portuguese are reputed to be intending to spend, on average, about 530€ each this Christmas. 88% of Portuguese people believe that their country is in a recession. The Portuguese wage packet traditionally includes a ‘Christmas bonus’ and this year (for public sector workers – I am not sure if this is for all employees?) this is being taxed at 50% – and then the remainder is taxed again at a further 25%. There is definitely less money around, rising unemployment, and many of the shops have sales on already. But there will still be presents under the tree, although I think people are being more cautious and price-savvy. Another difference here is that traditionally presents are exchanged on the 24th December at midnight.

8 Lights 

Interestingly, one of the casualties of the recession appears to have been the wonderful street lights and displays we have always enjoyed here in the Algarve.


7 Christmas markets

There have been some lovely little street markets – complete with stalls selling local produce and crafts, roasted chestnuts and sweet pastries, mulled wine, and musical entertainment. Christmas seems less ‘corporate’ in Portugal, and far more about local initiatives and local people coming together.

6 Christmas Meal

Christmas day is all about families and friends coming together – the traditional meal is Christmas Eve – so Christmas day is a chance to roast a big meal and spend time together – but not necessarily a roast turkey. It’s as likely to be rabbit, duck, pork or lamb; and every house will have a rich table laid full of traditional food, cakes, nuts and sweet pastries.

5 Bolo Rei

Another very traditional desert is the “Bolo Rei” (or King’s cake) “which is a round-shaped cake with a hole in the middle, made with soft white dough, nuts and raisins, and decorated with crystallised fruits and dried fruit:

The cake was first made at Lisbon’s ‘Confeitaria Nacional’ cake shop in 1870.  It was originally inspired by cakes whose origins were rooted in the Roman Empire and celebrated the New Year and the coming of the Three Wise Men. Traditionally a small gift – or a fava bean or broad bean – was hidden in the cake, and whoever found the bean was considered to be ‘King’ of the celebration or festivity. Nowadays, tradition has it that whoever finds the bean has to buy the next Bolo Rei cake.


4 Christmas trees

In Portugal shop owners put up Christmas Trees outside their shops to keep the festive feeling constant.

3 Bacalhau

bacalhau_12609Since the time of the European discoveries of the New World, the Portuguese have been fishing for cod in the waters of Newfoundland. The codfish were processed and salted on the boats to preserve them until they returned to Portugal, then dried in the sun and sold.

Bacalhau – dried and salted codfish – is a staple part of the Portuguese diet, and a strong traditional meal prepared on Christmas Eve. The dish is popular in Portugal and other Roman Catholic countries, because of the many days (Fridays, Lent and other festivals) on which the Church forbade the eating of meat, and Bacalhau dishes were eaten instead.

2 Bank Holidays

Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are obvious public holidays in Portugal – although unlike many other countries, Boxing Day is a normal day in Portugal. Portugal currently has more bank holidays than the UK overall, but with the austerity measures, the Prime Minister is considering moving some of the traditional bank holidays that fall in the middle of the week to an adjoining weekend. He is also negotiating with the Catholic church to ‘give up’ four bank holidays from 2012 onwards – with 2 national and 2 church days being removed.

…Sunny and blue sky’s 

And that’s the main reason for enjoying Christmas in Portugal! The weather forecast for Christmas is glorious – bright sun, 20 degrees and blue skies … and at this time of year the sunsets are truly amazing.

So, wherever you are, and however you may celebrate Christmas, may we wish you a ‘Feliz Natal’ and ‘Boas Festas’.