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.
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.