The Christmas season is a great time to visit Portugal. It is less crowded, and there are warm and sunny days.
During December, the entire country lives in a joyful season, and the word for this season is FAMILY.
Traditionally, Portuguese spend Christmas Eve around a table with lots of food like codfish and fried desserts, music, and family stories.
There is a special place at home for the Nativity scene and the Christmas tree.
Keep reading to learn all about the Christmas celebrations and how the Portuguese spend Christmas in Portugal.
This month is remarkable not only because it is Christmas month, but also because there are two holidays at the beginning of the month. December 1 is the Restoration of Independence and December 8 Immaculate Conception day.
These two holidays means more free time for most people; on top of that, a significant number of Portuguese take a few days off work during the Christmas season to spend more time at home, in family dinners, and Christmas shopping.
We cannot imagine Christmas being on any other day than December 25, but Santa Claus was not always around. The first official mention of December 25 honoring the birth of Jesus was made in the 4th century.
Given that most Portuguese are catholic, the church traditions still happen nowadays, and they pass from generation to generation. The most important celebrations are Christmas and Easter, but Epiphany is widely celebrated throughout the country.
In any Portuguese house, you will find a Christmas tree during this time of the year.
Putting up the Christmas tree is a family bonding moment (or maybe an argument on where the lights go!). However, in Portugal, Christmas trees have only been around since the 19th century, and initially, it was more of a noble and “expensive” thing to have.
It was only around the late 50’s that the Christmas trees started having a place in the Portuguese houses. Until that time, the main Christmas decoration was the Nativity scene, which is still in use today.
Re-usable trees became more common in the late ’90s because getting a real pine tree became more difficult due to legislation and environmental impacts. Nowadays, we can still rent a real pine tree, but then we must return it to the fireman to make sure it won’t go in the trash.
Santa Claus brings the gifts, and they are either opened at midnight or the morning of the 25. In some places, kids still put a shoe or sock by the chimney in hopes of having a gift inside.
It is still quite common to attend the Midnight Mass.
Christmas lights, markets & concerts
There is plenty to do in Portugal around Christmas time. From late November, we start having the streets decorated with Christmas lights. This brings joy and makes families go out to see the lights and for Christmas shopping.
There is a variety of Christmas Markets in the cities. They all have one thing familiar – local producers or artisans show their products. These markets are a great way to support businesses.
Especially during December, there are Christmas concerts in venues but also Cathedrals and churches.
Portuguese Family Christmas
The most important celebration is the evening of the 24th. That is when the family gets together at the table to eat the famous “Bacalhau” (cod). It is a feast!
But why cod?
Since Christmas in Portugal was and is a religious celebration, the church imposed no meat during the advent. Cod is an abundant fish at this time of the year, and it was easier to preserve in salt. The turkey was also a very famous Christmas dish; however, it was only for the higher classes and eaten only after the Midnight Mass.
After dinner comes dessert, Christmas desserts are another full meal. The most famous is “Bolo Rei” (King Cake).
The Bolo Rei can be seen on a table anywhere from mid-November until Epiphany. It is a kind of sweet bread and cake with a round shape with crystallized fruits on top. Inside you will find almonds, raisins, nuts, and a fava bean. Who gets the fava bean must buy or bake the Bolo Rei for the next year.
The lunch on the 25 is usually a meat dish, such as lamb or turkey.
Traveling to Portugal during Christmas
Christmas Season is a great time to travel to Portugal. Places are less crowded, and prices are more appealing than in the summer. It is a festive time, and our food gets an upgrade – if that is even possible! Learn about the weather during this time of the year in each region of the country.
Shops and attractions close on December 25 and January 1.
If you are planning on visiting Portugal during the festivities but you still have questions, contact us and we will help you plan your trip to Portugal.