Feliz Natal – Portugal's tree-stealing soldiers
by Line Eskildsen
Contrary to Spanish children, who have to wait until the January 6 before getting their Christmas gifts, Portuguese kids get theirs on December 25, and some might even get a couple on Christmas Eve. It is common for religious families to attend the traditional “Missa do Galo” (Rooster’s mass) held at midnight between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Today it is standard to have a Christmas tree today, but this wasn’t “normal” until the 1970s. Rather, the decoration in Portuguese homes concentrated on the “Presépio” (nativity scene), which still today is considered an integral part of traditional Christmas decorations. The nativity scenes will vary in size and amount of detail from family to family. The holy family has to be represented in one way or another, but Jesus will not lie in his crib before the 24th. According to some traditions, baby Jesus brings the Christmas gifts and leaves these under the tree. During his visit, he’ll leave a miniature figurine of himself in the home’s nativity scene. However, today it’s not uncommon that Father Christmas is the one who brings the gifts on Christmas Eve, leaving these under the tree or in a shoe by the fireplace, and Jesus will be placed in his crib around Christmas Eve.
“Consoada” (the tradition of getting together on Christmas dinner) is on “Noite Natal” (Christmas Eve) before mass or while waiting for Baby Jesus, Father Christmas or gifts in general. The “Ceia de Natal” (Christmas dinner) normally consists of “Baccalau “ (salted codfish) with vegetables and potatoes often followed by oysters, lobster or other luxurious shellfish and fine foods. Some set extra plates for the “Alminhas a penar” (souls of the dead) and place food on the plates to wish them well.
The desserts are the main feature of “Ceia de Natal” and all of the dishes are usually put on the table at the same time. There’ll be "rabandas" (similar to French toast), "filhós" (deep fried pumpkin dough), "broas de mel" (pastries made with honey), “azevias" (cakes consisting of chickpeas and orange peel) and the obligatory "Bolo Rei" (King's cake). The wreath-shaped pastry contains a broad bean and a little present or token. The aim is to find the token rather than the bean, as the finder of the latter will have to pay for next year’s cake.
Some areas have special traditions, like the Penamacor region, where, according to local lore, young men about to enlist for military service have to steal firewood and make a large fire in front of the village’s main church. The “Madeiro de Natal” (Christmas fire) is to be lit just before the midnight massto keep the Jesus’ feet warm. The fire should be so big that it’ll keep burning throughout the night and well into Christmas Day.
After Christmas, during the first weeks of January, carollers carrying an image of Jesus in his crib will go from house to house and sing the “Janeiras” (January songs) asking for food and drink. It is customary to let the singers in for a bite to eat and something to drink so that they will sing a song to praise the friendly host. If they aren’t let in or if the food wasn’t to their liking, the host will be given a song mocking him and his family as retribution.