During the Holy Week, which marks the end of Lent in the run-up to Easter, the deeply Catholic country is steeped in religious ritual and tradition, followed by all kinds of people from the smallest villages to the largest cities.
The season celebrates the end of the fourty-day period of fasting and penitence known as Lent and the beginning of the Holy Week marking the days that preceded the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Christian tradition. As such, rituals in Portugal are many and vary from region to region or village to village, greatly depending where they are held. Father José Luís Borga highlights the distinctions among the various experiences of Easter that take place around the country. “The experience of Easter is very plural. They range from Easter visits by groups from the parishes to their members, to processions”, which celebrate the Passion of Christ. “In cities”, Father Borga explained, “Easter traditions are more subjective”, but there are several organisations which celebrate it with local processions during Holy Week.
Father Borga points out that, especially in rural areas, some traditions are still very much alive. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which signals Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Tradition dictates that godchildren offer their godparents an olive branch, flowers or even sweets such as Easter almonds or chocolates (eventually blessed by the priest). From the celebration of spring, Christianty also inherited the use of flowers which bloom in this season. These are not only used in the celebration of Palm Sunday, but also used to embelish the crosses which are hung on the doors of people’s homes during Easter, as Father José Luís Borga explains, to adorn the figure of Christ.
On Maundy Thursday, one of the most well-known rituals is the lava-pés (feet washing) ceremony which takes place in the deeply religious northern city of Braga, when the Archbishop washes the feet of twelve people, representing the twelve apostles, before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Missa da Ceia do Senhor) is held in the cathedral, symbolising the humbleness of Christ before the celebration of the Passion.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday – the most important celebrations
Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, is a public holiday in Portugal and is the most important day in the Holy Week after Easter Sunday. Tradition says the faithful should abstain from eating meat – although some priests nowadays say it is not compulsory, recommending some type of fastening as a sign of penitence for Christ’s suffering on the Calvary. As in many other Catholic countries, the tradition prompted the Portuguese to seek alternative nourishment, and the choice fell on fish, and most particularly, codfish. Whether practicing Catholics or not, the majority of people in Portugal still follow this tradition of eating codfish on Good Friday.
Good Friday sees many religious processions taking place all over the country, from the more gentle and pious to the more fearsome and awe-inspiring penitential processions. This is one of the main highlights in the celebrations of the Holy Week. One of the principal and more transverse processions is the Via Crúcis (Stations of the Cross), where the faithful relive the different stages of the Passion of Christ. Another important procession is the Procissão do Senhor Morto (Procession of the Dead Lord), a mournful event where the faithful walk through the streets with candles chanting on the way to bury a figure of Christ after the crucifixion.
Holy Saturday (or Sábado de Aleluia in Portuguese), the last day of Holy Week, is traditionally a day of reflection before Easter Sunday, when the first mass is held to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – the Easter Vigil (Vigília Pascal), on Saturday night.
On Easter Sunday, the day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, several traditions and rituals are followed throughout the day. One of them is the Visit of the Priest, nowadays mostly held in the villages, when people receive in their homes the visit of the parish priest who carries a figure of Christ which is kissed by the faithful in exchange for the folar, which represents a small gift to the retinue. Meanwhile, on Easter Monday it is common in several regions of the country – but especially in the Alentejo – to gather the family and go on a picnic where they eat the traditional roast lamb.
Special Easter food and sweets
Besides the liturgical traditions, there are also quite a few pagan traditions which still endure in Portugal, most of which were assimilated by Christianity throughout the centuries. Such is the case of the Easter bunny, “associated with the idea of fertility“, as Father José Luís Borga points out, and which “appears in reproductions long connected with Christianity”. Easter eggs represent the “resurrection”, the celebration of life from the original element, be they chicken eggs decorated with colourful paintings or, most commonly seen today and the favourites of children, chocolate eggs.
The Easter celebrations also include several special dishes and treats. Besides the traditional codfish served on Good Friday, roast lamb is usually eaten on Easter Sunday, “a heritage from the Jewish tradition” which celebrates the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and the sacrifice of the lambs in the story of their flight to freedom. As mentioned before, the folar is to be found on most people’s tables around this time of the year. It represents both the distribution of bread in the Last Supper, and the resurrection of Christ. It is mainly served as a sweet bread, but in some regions it is also made as a savoury and includes sausages, ham or other meats. In the Algarve the folar is eaten as a sweet, making it closer to a cake than the classic Easter bread, with several layers of melted sugar, cinnamon and caramel. Other recipes also include aniseed and other sweeteners.