What to Expect When Spending Christmas in Portugal
Cinnamon and nutmeg scents are in the air, shrimps are cracking open, Martinis are being stirred and codfish is cooking in the oven. It´s the third Christmas I´m spending in Portugal. And since three is such a magical number, I decided to write about what you can expect if you spend your Christmas in Europe´s sunniest country. Well, at least what you can expect from Christmas in our family.
Celebrations start on the evening of the 24th of December when the family gets together for the Christmas Eve dinner. This is an event that usually takes us around 8 hours and I´m not even kidding you. Portugal being a very catholic country, there are a lot of religious families that at midnight head to church to attend the missa do gallo - the mass of the rooster. According to legend, in ancient times, a rooster sang louder than ever on a night between the 24th and 25th of December announcing the birth of baby Jesus. After returning from church, people add the baby Jesus figurine to the nativity scene (you can find one in every single house and they come in as many shapes and sizes you can imagine), then proceeding to the ceia de natal (Christmas dinner) and presents opening.
Tables and houses are beautifully decorated with lots of candles, angels and Santa Clauses lurking on every available shelf. The good cutlery is taken out and polished and you almost feel bad for sitting down and disturbing these artsy arrangements.
Unlike cold Romania, Portugal´s mild winter does not require all the heavy, greasy food I grew to love and cherish at Christmas. So instead of the traditional sarmale and pork dishes, Portugal taught me that fish and sea food make for awesome and much lighter Christmas meals. Depending on the region, Portuguese will most probably be serving either peru (turkey), polvo (octopus) or bacalhau (codfish) - usually boiled for the main dish. The codfish is more common from what I can tell and usually gets served with boiled cabbage and potatoes. Because our family doesn´t really like this recipe, we opted to have codfish in the oven with batata a murro (smashed potatoes). For starters there´s boiled shrimp with mayo, a great selection of cheeses, ham and dried fruits and nuts. As for dessert, Portuguese people have started to celebrate Christmas with the bolo-rei, a dessert that in the past was reserved for Three King´s Day on the 6th of January, but which increased in popularity and became a Christmas delicacy, much like the Romanian cozonac. Derived from the French Gâteau des Rois which found its way to Portugal during the 19th century when Confeitaria Nacional opened as Portuguese monarchy's official bakery in 1829, this cake can also be enjoyed in a lot of cafés which sell it by the slice. If you wanna read more about the Confeitaria Nacional I mention them in the article I wrote about Lisbon´s oldest cafés. Other beloved sweets for this occasion are aletria, rabanadas or filhoses. We went a bit rogue here too and opted for André´s by now famous carrot cake with a snow frosting - as pictured below with a very smiley André.
Presents are usually opened after dinner, in our family´s case at particularly midnight. This timing is sacred and cannot be broken under any circumstances. It´s a beautiful ceremony with lots of cheers, laughter and surprises. For the families with small children, sometimes presents only get opened on the 25th in the morning, after Santa had a chance to visit and eat his cookies. Books, pyjamas, jewelleries, games and gadgets all come together under the Christmas tree awaiting to delight both younger and older family members. And pets. In our case, lots of dogs as you can see in the pictures below.
With bellies still half full, the 25th of December awaits with its Christmas lunch. There´s little guidance about the menu on this day and our family has adopted the tradition of having shrimp rice. A meal that yet again can take up to 6 hours, people are a bit more tired at this stage. Home Alone is playing on TV, there are no more presents but Portuguese still can´t imagine being anywhere but with their families on this sacred day.
Despite all traditions and cultural nuances that separate the Portuguese culture from mine, one thing is universal: Christmas is a sacred period for being at home with family, sharing savory food, tasty wine and lots of love. The Portuguese´s magical connection to their families has been and forever will be, foremost of all, the reason I feel at home in a country otherwise so foreign to my own.