A guide to Christmas in Portugal

In Lisbon it appears Santa travels by tram

Christmas in Portugal is a unique and slightly surreal experience for those of us who grew up in Northern Europe. On the one hand, being able to eat Christmas dinner outside and walk along the beach on Christmas morning is absolutely fantastic. On the other hand, Christmas doesn’t feel as festive here in Portugal as it does in the UK, Germany, Ireland, the United States – basically anywhere that’s cold in December.

I say feel as festive because it’s really just a feeling. A lot of Christmasy things happen in Portugal during December, but against the backdrop of the beautiful blue skies and warm winter sun it doesn’t really feel like Christmas.

Personally, I would choose Vitamin D over a traditional Christmasy feeling any day. Some people, however, are more traditional and just can’t get their head around having a Christmas like this. If you’re not sure which category you fall into, come and spend at least one Christmas in Portugal to see if you like it or not.

Portugal is actually very Christmasy in its own way. One example is nativity scenes (presépios), something which you’re less and less likely to see in secularist Northern Europe.

A very rural nativity scene that was showcased at an exhibition of nativity scenes in Évora

The Portuguese love nativity scenes. You’ll find them all over Portugal around Christmas, often by the side of the road near roundabouts. Live nativity scenes, where people dress up as characters from the Christmas story, are also incredibly popular and a feature of many towns in Portugal.

Portugal’s love for nativity scenes has even entered The Guinness of Records. In 2012, the town of São Paio de Oleiros entered the Guinness Book of Records for hosting the largest moving nativity scene in the world. The most mechanical figures in a nativity scene record also goes to a Portuguese person, this time Manuel Jacinto from Santa Maria da Feira who broke the record in 2013.

Even the smaller nativity scenes that people have in their own homes are taken very seriously. Rather than just put set them up on the hall table, great effort goes into collecting moss, bark, and stones to create an authentic background.

The pieces themselves are often passed down from generation to generation, and contain both religious figurines (Mary and Joseph, for example) as well as cultural figurines (farmers, for example).

Christmas Shopping in Portugal

In comparison to other countries, like the USA and UK, buying presents in Portugal is very difficult. There just isn’t the same variety and selection, and most shops don’t have displays set up with inspirational gift ideas. Generally speaking, it’s much easier to do your shopping at home and bring the gifts out to Portugal than to traipse around the malls here racking your brain for inspiration.

Forum Algarve in December
Christmas shopping at Forum Algarve

Christmas markets are becoming more popular in Portugal, but they’re nowhere near as popular as they are in other parts of Europe. You may find craft markets at this time of year, however, and these can be great for picking up unique Christmas gifts.

These days, more and more people do their Christmas shopping online (usually at Amazon). Amazon doesn’t have a base in Portugal, however, and so it takes about a week for orders to arrive. So, yes, you can do your online Christmas shopping here, but it’ll take longer to arrive.

Christmas traditions in Portugal

Christmas in Portugal takes place on the eve of the 24th of December although, as a lot of it happens around midnight, it crosses over into the 25th.

Shoes (as opposed to stockings) are traditionally laid out for the Baby Jesus (as opposed to Santa), and the house is decorated for Christmas. Part of this involves setting up the nativity scene, although the baby Jesus isn’t added just yet.

Most families go to midnight mass (Missa do Galo), although some churches have masses that take place a little earlier. A big part of midnight mass is kissing the baby Jesus, and everyone in the congregation will queue up to do so.

In some parts of Portugal, for example in Bragança, Guarda, or Castelo Branco, it’s not uncommon for there to be a large communal fire in the church car park. It gives everyone in the community a chance to gather around and wish each other a “Feliz Natal” (Merry Christmas).

After that, it’s back home to see what presents the baby Jesus (or Santa) has left for everybody. The baby Jesus also gets added to the nativity scene (as he’s now officially ‘born’).

Traditional Christmas Food in Portugal

Christmas dinner, or Consoada, takes place on the eve of the 24th. Portugal’s national dish, bacalhau, is probably the most traditional option for Christmas dinner, although octopus is also common in the North of Portugal and in the Algarve.

bacalhau
Bacalhau for sale

As Portugal is a Catholic country, meat doesn’t feature at all. The starters are likely to be fish-based salgados like Bolinhos de Bacalhau and Rissóis de Camarão.

Regardless of the Catholicism, it isn’t surprising that bacalhau is eaten at Christmas: the Portuguese love bacalhau. What’s surprising, though, is the bacalhau recipe used for Christmas: Bacalhãu de Consoada. There are more than 365 different recipes for bacalhau, and this isn’t the most popular bacalhau recipe. Made up of cabbage, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, and bacalhau, it is very basic and non-indulgent, particularly when compared to Bacalhau com Natas – although the gallons of olive oil added usually jazz it up a little.

The sweets, most of which fall into the category of fried dough, are a lot more indulgent. Rabanadas or fatias douradas (French toast with a wine sauce) and sonhos are both deep-fried and covered in sugar, and have a very festive feel to them, as do the azevias do grão e amendõa (fried chickpea and almond pastries).

Along with these sweets, popular desserts include flan and arroz doce (rice pudding). There’s also lampreia de natal, a dessert made almost entirely of egg yolks and shaped like a lamprey fish.

Two other cakes that you can definitely expect to see are Bolo Rei and Bolo Rainha, two bread-style fruit cakes that are made of dried fruits and nuts. Bolo Rei (king cake) also has candied fruits on the top. Bolo Rainha (Queen cake) doesn’t have the dried fruits, but makes up for it with extra nuts. These cakes are eaten between Christmas and January 6th, when the three wise men arrive.

Bolo Rei with the candied fruit on top
Bolo Rei

The next day (December 25th), is a quieter day and most families usually have a meat dish like lamb, cabrito assado (baby goat), or even turkey. Or, there’s the option to have bacalhau again. The bacalhau eaten on the 25th is known as Roupa Velha (old clothes) and is basically a mash made from all of the leftover bacalhau consoada, usually with an egg thrown in as well.

Non-Portuguese Christmas dinners

If you’re coming to Portugal for Christmas you may want to cook a Christmas meal that’s traditional to your own country. Although it wasn’t always this way, it’s now very easy to get a lot of non-Portuguese ingredients in Portugal.

The Algarve has two supermarkets that are particularly helpful: the very upmarket Apolónia and the more budget-friendly Iceland (note: this shop also stocks some Waitrose products). There are also online grocery stores that ship British, American, and German products to Portugal.

Supermarkets like Iceland stock everything from mince pies to frozen Yorkshire puddings, and even whole turkeys, while Apolónia is great for more luxurious products.

If you don’t have an expat supermarket nearby, you should be able to put together British/American Christmas dinner together easily enough. There are a few things that are sometimes hard to get in Portuguese supermarkets such as parsnips, double cream, and oatcakes. As for pastries like mince pies and Yorkshire puddings, you’ll have to make these yourself.

Eating out for Christmas dinner in Portugal

If you’re visiting Portugal for Christmas and don’t want to cook Christmas lunch, it may be possible to go out for it. In the more touristy parts of the Algarve, some restaurants and pubs will be open. Some of these will be Portuguese restaurants, and some will be British-style restaurants.

Outside of the Algarve, and the touristiest parts of Portugal, most Portuguese restaurants will be shut. Indian and Chinese restaurants often open, but it’s always a good idea to check in advance.

Restaurants and bars are also likely to close up early on the 24th when everyone heads home to prepare for the Christmas dinner.

Thefork.pt allows you to make restaurant reservations online, and it could be an easy way of seeing which restaurants are open on Christmas day.

Port & other Portuguese alcohol

Many people who come to Portugal often don’t realise that there are so many different types of Port: tawny, ruby, white, crusted…the list goes on. Two Christmas crowd pleasers to add to the shopping list are LBV (late bottled vintage) and white Port.

ginjinha
A glass of ginjinha outside A Ginjinha in Lisbon

As well as Port, consider adding a bottle of Ginjinha to the shopping list. This is a Portuguese alcohol made from sour cherries that has a very Christmasy taste. If you have a sweet tooth, Amarguinha, a liquor made from almonds and tastes very like marzipan is another one to stick in the trolley.

Christmas Movies & TV in Portugal

Everyone knows that TV can be a bit disappointing at Christmas, and this is definitely also true in Portugal. It pays to be prepared, and so it’s worth either bringing out some DVDs or signing up for Netflix in advance (you can also do this on the day, either).

Netflix Portugal, although not as big as Netflix USA or Netflix UK, has a decent selection of films, and more than enough to keep the family entertained for a day or two.

It’s worth mentioning that BBC iPlayer doesn’t work abroad, and neither does 4Od.

Weather in Portugal during Christmas

If you’re heading to the Algarve during Christmas, you can usually expect fantastic weather. In 2016, the weather was sunny with highs of 19°C – warm enough to sit outside for Christmas dinner.

Portugal is a low and narrow country, with a diverse climate, so most of the rest of Portugal is usually colder than this. Porto, for example, is much further north and usually much colder. Braga, Guimarães, and Vila Real are even further north again.

In some parts of Portugal, it even snows. Yes, it’s possible to have a white Christmas in Portugal is you head towards the Serra da Estrela. You can even go skiing!

The end of Christmas

Christmas officially ends on the 6th of January, although for many people it’s back to work again on the 26th of December. Everything stops again for New Year’s Eve, or Réveillon, and most people have the 1st of January off work.

In many parts of Portugal, people sing in the New Year (a custom known as Janeiras) between January 1st and January 6th. The custom involves going door-to-door singing, wishing people a happy new year, and asking for leftovers (or money).

After the 6th, Christmas is officially over. The decorations, and the all important nativity scene, come down and are put away until the end of the year.

Have you celebrated Christmas in Portugal? Where did you visit? Let us, and other Portugalist readers, know about your experience by filling in the comments below.

James has spent time living in Lisbon, the Algarve, and in the north of Portugal. He has been featured in publications such as the Huffington Post, The Independent, and Reader’s Digest.