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Christmas in Portugal as a Foreigner

December is here and so is the Holiday spirit! Christmas in Portugal is very family-centred, thus, as a foreigner, it can be especially hard not having your family around during this time of the year. In this article, we’ll let you know all about Portuguese traditions and how to have the best possible Christmas and holiday time in Portugal!

Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl, CEO
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How is Christmas celebrated in Portugal?

Christmas traditions in Portugal are made up mostly of time spent with family, friends, and various feasts. 

The Christmas-themed celebrations usually start the 1st of December (which is a holiday in Portugal). This is when most people put up their trees, “presépios” (a nativity scene) and decorations and the cities turn on their Christmas lights. Some towns also put up big presépios – and even “live” ones as an attraction.

Christmas traditions in Portugal

As previously stated, December 1st and December 8th are public holidays in Portugal, so people usually set up their Christmas tree on one of these days. Christmas trees in Portugal are mostly fake and store-bought, there isn’t really any tradition of getting a real pine tree (‘pinheiro‘ in Portuguese), like in other countries. But something that is really popular is adorning windows and balconies with light strips and climbing Santa Claus! Both real and fake presépios (nativity scenes) are also big attractions around the country, with a lot of people travelling miles just to see the most popular and grandiose of them, but most municipalities build something of their own.   

From here on out, a lot of holiday-themed markets and festivals take place. A big tradition during the time preceding Christmas day is Christmas dinners – for groups of friends, companies, school, etc. Then, Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch are reserved for family. 

One could say the 24th is even more important than the 25th for Portuguese people. Presents are exchanged usually at midnight, sometimes even before, due to religious people attending “Missa do Galo” (Midnight Mass) at 12. It is also tradition to leave the Christmas dinner table as is (without cleaning) and to pick up from there on Christmas Day. 

Another notable difference is that, in Portugal, Christmas time lasts till the 6th of January – “Dia de Reis”. It’s around this date that people take down their decorations. On this day a big tradition, especially in smaller towns, is for groups of people to go door to door singing the “Janeiras” – popular songs and chants that, in the past, were used to announce the birth of Christ and to wish a happy new year. Nowadays, most groups who go out on the street to sing the Janeiras are non-profit organisations and kids.

Portuguese Christmas Food

As stated before, Christmas dinner in Portugal is a very special occasion. The most traditional meal throughout the country is boiled “bacalhau” (codfish), with potatoes and vegetables. Although, in some regions, turkey and octopus are also common. Obviously, all followed by a lot of typical Portuguese desserts – and we really mean A LOT. In most homes a big table is set just for the sweets. The most common desserts are ‘rabanadas’, ‘aletria’, ‘bolo rei’, ‘sonhos’ and ‘filhoses’. 

For lunch on the 25th, roasted lamb and veal usually accompany ‘farrapo velho’ – a reuse of the previous night’s codfish. While the desserts are usually made to last the two meals.  

serra da estrela
Serra da Estrela. Sent in for our Photo Contest. ©José Alves
Aletria. A very typical Portuguese Christmas sweet.

What you can do around the holidays

A lot of cities and towns all over the country set up big trees, beautiful all-around decorations and ‘presépios‘ – some are even ‘live’ ones. Lisbon and Porto are notorious for their big and luminous trees, visited and photographed by many. You can find Lisbon’s in Terreiro do Paço and Porto’s in Avenida dos Aliados. In Lisbon, there’s also the biggest Christmas market in the country, called Wonderland – with many attractions for kids and adults. 

We recommend you explore a little, though. A very popular town around this time is Óbidos, home to a Christmas festival that lasts the whole month of December called “Vila Natal“. 

Some other suggestions would be to visit the ‘presépios’ all over the country. Vila Real de Santo António, in the Algarve, has one of the largest in Portugal, mostly made of cork – the most traditional Portuguese material. Presépio de Priscos, in the Braga district, is the biggest live presépio in Europe and it’s dedicated to a different social issue every year. It’s also built by inmates of a nearby prison. 

Some other small towns with a significant Christmas scene are Penela (Coimbra), Perlim (Santa Maria da Feira) and Leiria. 

Spending Christmas alone?

Even if you have just gotten to Portugal, there are a lot of groups all over social media (especially Facebook and WhatsApp) meant for immigrants to come together, help each other out and make new friends. There are also specific groups based on nationality, for example, so you can feel a sense of community right from the beginning. 

If you are spending Christmas alone, though, you shouldn’t let the loneliness get to you. There are plenty of things that you can do to keep yourself busy.

For example, you can take the day to explore Portugal, and visit the towns mentioned above. There are plenty of beautiful places to see, and you might even meet some new friends along the way.

Another great way to keep yourself busy is to find some volunteer work to do. There are always organizations that need help during the holidays, and this will give you a chance to give back to the community. Here are some options:

  • G.A.S Porto
  • Associação Remar
  • Fundação Fé e Cooperação (FEC)
christmas in portugal
Christmas tree in Terreiro do Paço, Lisbon

There aren’t many Jewish communities in Portugal, but Hanukkah is still celebrated a little all over the country, with the most popular celebrations arguably taking place in Cascais and Belmonte. There are also synagogues in Trancoso and Porto.  

Get used to a sunny Holiday season!

If you’re used to Christmases in a snowy climate, the thought of spending the holidays in Portugal may seem a bit odd. But Christmas in Portugal can be just as magical as any other winter holiday. 

Trust us, after enjoying a few sunny Christmas traditions in Portugal, you’ll never go back. Also, this time of the year is still very cold, so the comfort of being warm, or activities like ice skating are still here for you. If you miss snow that much, you can visit Serra da Estrela, but we are sure you won’t!

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