Christmas in Portugal is not too different than ours in Australia, but obviously it’s a lot colder, being winter in the northern hemisphere. There are some slight differences but above all Christmas here is about family, friends, food, religion, giving and receiving.
In every household, in the streets, schools and shopping malls are very elaborate presépio’s (nativity scenes). Some of them are even life-size. My favourite little presépio that I saw in the lead up to Christmas was in a town in the Algarve inside an Italian restaurant. This presépio also had its own pizzeria, which the three wise men were just leaving from!
You also see a lot of climbing Santa’s throughout Portugal. These little red and white guys can be spotted hanging out windows, chimney’s, off rooftops, restaurant signs – I swear they are everywhere! But in contrast, Santa is not the star of the show here and children are brought up to believe that the baby Jesus brought the presents (not literally but figuratively in the story of Christmas). Santa is treated more in good humour. Children in Portugal generally do not think that a fat guy in a red and white suit bought them a stack of presents…which makes sense in this country where Catholics make up 85% of the population.
Traditionally, the most important get-together is Christmas eve. We spent most of the afternoon helping Filipa’s aunty prepare for the feast that night; preparing the table, chopping vegetables, peeling chestnuts and doing last minute things. The gathering was slightly smaller this year due to some of the family spending Christmas with their husbands/wives families but nonetheless we still had around 24 people for dinner that night. Traditionally, codfish (bacalhau) is always eaten with cabbage on Christmas eve. There was also a dish of beef with chestnuts as well, plus cheeses, chouriços and don’t forget the home made wines and a whole table-load of desserts.
After the meal, we headed to the centre of the village where every year there is a huge bonfire. It was very welcome as temperatures were down to about -1 degree that night. We stood around the bonfire for a while and then we headed back to the house for the giving of gifts at midnight.
The Christmas tree was overflowing with a sea of presents underneath. Filipa’s cousin Pedro played ‘Santa’ with the help of two other little cousins, Clarisse (10) and Joana (8) as helpful elves, delivering the presents as they were called out. But Joana really wanted to be Santa (see below).
This was an unwrapping, hugging and kissing frenzy which went on for about an hour, leaving everyone with smiles and mountains of wrapping paper. After this, it’s tradition for Zé, one of Filipa’s uncles, to cook his prawns. Trays and trays of prawns came out and Christmas wrapped up around 2.00am. Well, we kind of rolled home.
Half of the family went to Mass on Christmas morning (we were still sleeping…guilty!) and then we all met for Christmas lunch – a big roast turkey, with stuffing inside and also a roasted goat with potatoes, garlic, herbs and chilli. More wine, more desserts! I must confess I am a huge fan of goat after living here for almost 6 months. And the turkey was divine too, always served with orange.
We spent the days after Christmas just hanging out in the village and doing some small trips to places nearby. Not far from Barriosa is the cutest traditional village I have ever seen called Piódão. Just over 200 people live there. Forty years ago, this little village was only reachable on horseback or foot! It is unique in that all the houses are still made traditionally from a beautiful grey stone and slate.
Filipa lived here when she was about 6 years old as her mother taught at the school for a year. She had to walk almost to where I took this photo from, sometimes twice a day (home for lunch) in rain, snow, mud or sunshine.
I loved it. We walked through the tiny streets and admired the stonework and gorgeous doorways. The village clings to the beautiful remote ridge and there is a rushing river that passes alongside the town with the perfect swimming hole for summer. Crosses above some of the doors are said to protect the occupants from curses and thunderstorms.
Filipa’s village is also about 45 minutes drive away from Portugal’s highest mountain (on the mainland) called Torre. It’s 1,993 metres high but the highest mountain in Portugal is actually on the island of Azores called Pico, at 2,351 metres. There is a small ski field on the top of Torre with three lifts and some modest beginners slopes. We went right to the top and only lasted about 10 minutes outside the car due to the windchill. Usually at this time of year though the mountain is covered in snow but this year there was just a spattering, only enough for some very enthusiastic beginners and tobogganists.
The two towers on top of Torre round up the mountain to 2,000 metres.
Apart from missing my own family, it was a brilliant festive season with Filipa’s family. It was everything that Christmas should be about – LOVE!