US/Portugal: Christmas

Having just put up our Árvore de Natal (Christmas tree) this weekend, I’ve been thinking about how different the season and the holiday feels here in Portugal.

Natal, or Christmas, is very much a family holiday for the Portuguese. Gift giving is a secondary consideration, and from what I’ve seen it’s also a less expensive consideration. Children are not showered with piles of gifts; friends exchange something like a book or CD. The sheer commercialization of the American Christmas retail season has no equivalent here.

Back home, the stores and malls are putting up their trees right after Halloween. Christmas advertisements start filling the airwaves and newspapers; the sales run for two months. You can’t get away from the relentless reminders that it’s the season for spending money. And on the day after Thanksgiving, it really goes into high gear.

In Portugal, there’s no Thanksgiving to provide the official kick-off of the Christmas season. There’s no official kickoff at all, unless it’s the day your local city or town turns on its Natal lights.

Natal lights

I love these lights. They’re spectacular. I’m used to the small decorations that cities back home put up on roadside light poles, but in Portugal the concept is taken to a whole new level. Workers spend days on lifts and ladders in early November, stringing wires across the roads and then mounting enormous, artistic light displays on them. They mount lights on poles around fountains, statues and roundabouts. The main avenues are lined with light displays, as well as the pedestrian shopping areas. (The shopping areas often have a red carpet rolled down the center, as well.)

Larger cities have bigger displays, of course, but even the small towns will have road-spanning signs or decorations. And then, with no fanfare, will come a night in late November when the lights are turned on. They will stay on until January 6, the Day of the Kings.

This is a big difference between here and the US. Back home, the Christmas season may start early, but it ends on Christmas Day. Boom, it’s over. Here, it’s not over until a week after New Year’s. My first year here, I made the mistake of taking our Christmas tree down a couple of days after Natal. My stepson was horrified. He’d never heard of such a thing! (I have since mended my ways.)

Most families have their Natal celebration on December 24, when the clan gathers for a massive meal. The meal traditionally has several courses and lasts quite some time, as it is truly the centerpiece of the holiday. One of the main dishes is always bacalhau, the famous dried cod of Portugal, which is reconstituted and served in any number of ways. Another main dish is turkey, usually roasted whole in the oven. It’s kind of a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

Another tradition is the baked goods. Oh, yummy. They put candy canes and chocolates wrapped in Christmas foil to shame. Bakeries all over the nation are now making sonhos, which means “dreams” and yes, that’s what they are! They’re a little puff of pastry, so moist at the center that the really good ones taste as if they contain cream. (They don’t.) Filhós are another popular treat, which Americans would recognize as elephant ears (round, flat pastries deep fried and rolled in cinnamon sugar). Then there are the Papos de Anjo, which does not translate very well (it refers to the soft part of the throat on an angel). These are made almost entirely of egg and sugar, with a little flour to hold it all together, and drizzled with a sugar glaze on top. They’re so sweet I can’t even eat them, but the Portuguese will stampede each other at the dinner table for them. And in place of the American fruitcake, the Portuguese have the Bolo Rei, or King Cake.

With the exception of the filhós, all of these pastries are available only during the Natal season. I look forward all year to sonhos.

I will admit to being a total Grinch about Christmas back home. I hated the commercialization, and the pressure to send out cards and buy gifts of a certain value. Most everyone I knew spent much of December in a state of perpetual stress, trying to fulfill all of their cultural obligations. The day itself was often wonderful, but the stressful weeks prior to it were not. I think a lot of folks back home enjoy Christmas in spite of what it’s turned into, rather than because of it.

It’s different here. Calmer, less commercialized, and somehow sweeter. That’s not to say that the malls aren’t crammed with shoppers right now, because they certainly are. But spending money is not the main point of the holiday. Family is the point. And that big casserole dish of bacalhau, followed by those unutterably sweet Papos de Anjo.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to US/Portugal: Christmas

  1. Scout says:

    You’re making me miss Europe already, and I only just got home. Repatriating (if that’s even a word) is almost as weird as expatriating…

  2. Karyn says:

    It sounds lovely. The lights are beautiful! It sounds like a wonderful and warm celebration that brings family closer together.

  3. Rute says:

    I do miss the beautiful street lights! Specially in the downtown of Lisbon, they always had it so beautifully decorated!
    But at least in Germany they have the Christmas markets and the nice Glühwein!

  4. Marta says:

    As always, I enjoyed reading your description of our Christmas from an American point of view. I just wanted to correct that it’s “PapOs d’Anjo” (or “de Anjo”) with an O. Papa means the Pope or that kind of rice cereal babies eat. I hope you don’t mind this little correction. Happy Holidays!

    • oregon expat says:

      Thank you, Marta — it’s fixed now. Though I’ll be having a chat with my wife, who proofread this post before I put it up! Maybe I shouldn’t give her proofreading jobs while she’s drinking gin and tonic.

  5. Queen says:

    I now live in Australia and a Christmas Down Under is definitely different than one in North America. It’s all about the beach, swim suits and sunscreen instead of sleigh bells and Jack Frost nipping at your nose! (They still play the traditional carols, though, which is a tad surreal.) The food is also different — some folks still do up a turkey dinner, but that can heat up your house in a big hurry when its 30 C outside! A lot of folks switch over to the BBQ for Christmas and cook seafood instead. And they play a family game of cricket, too (a sport I may never understand). Merry Christmas! (I refuse to abbreviate the word to either X-mas or “Chrissy”, as they do down here.)

  6. Célia says:

    Have you tried carrot or pumpkin sonhos? I like them best than the traditional ones 🙂

  7. ire23 says:

    Hi, I happened upon your blog when I was doing a Google search on Algarve in December. I wS wondering: how’s the weather? And is Algarve completely deserted during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of December?

    Would appreciate any advice you have. Thanks!

    • oregon expat says:

      The Algarve is very quiet in December. You would have beaches and trails to yourself, and lower prices at hotels and restaurants. As for the weather, it’s cold but almost never approaches freezing, even at night. (Go up into the hills marking the north edge of the Algarve, however, and it’s a different story.) There are often days when the afternoon sun is so warm it’s t-shirt weather, but as soon as the sun sets, it’s quite cold. Rain and wind are definite possibilities, but so is sun. In a nutshell, December is not predictable.

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