It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
Christmas is already upon us. What a head-spinning realization. One year ago we were in New Jersey and just a few short weeks from leaving the country. We were busy making our lists and checking them twice, trying to find out how naughty or nice United Airlines might be with all the stuff we were trying to cram into our luggage.
Oddly enough, this will be the second year in a row that we haven’t decked the halls with boughs of holly (fa la la la la la la boo hoo). Everything was in storage last year and this year there is absolutely no space to put decorations once Christmas is over. When we were still in New Jersey we compensated by hanging out at Matt and Heather’s home (my son and his wife) or at the homes of friends. [Special shout out to Janet and George for hosting that ugly Christmas sweater party! While more funny than ugly, Won got into the spirit of the evening with his matching sweater and wine cozy. Be sure to look closely at that sweater.]
So, in order to have a holly jolly Christmas this year, we got into the spirit of the season by educating ourselves on Portuguese customs and traditions surrounding Christmas. We thought it might be fun and appropriate to adopt some of the local practices of our new home country.
Turns out Christmas traditions in Portugal are broadly similar to those in other countries. As an example, the Portuguese put up Christmas trees, which interestingly wasn’t common until the 1970s. They also have stories that include Santa Claus who is referred to as Pai Natal (Father Christmas). The twist in these stories is that parents tell their children that the baby Jesus helps Santa with the presents.
Families usually set up a nativity scene (presépio) with Mary, Joseph, a cow and donkey, and the three wise men, but without the figure of the Christ Child. Before leaving for midnight mass, parents secretly put the baby Jesus in the nativity scene and put the gifts under the Christmas tree, so that Jesus will ‘miraculously’ be in his manger by the time the family returns home from church. Children run to check the nativity scene as soon as they enter the house – no baby Jesus means no presents! Children normally receive their presents at midnight on Christmas Eve, although some open a few after mass and the remaining presents the next morning. Hmmm…we don’t have children so we’re not likely to adopt this practice.
We also learned that Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day. In addition to attending midnight mass, families reunite on Christmas Eve to feast on a traditional Christmas meal and wait together for Pai Natal to arrive. This family reunion and dinner is called a consoada. The consoada main course is generally boiled bacalhau (codfish), potatoes, and cabbage or greens drizzled with olive oil. This is typically followed by shellfish, wild meats, or other expensive foods. The variety and quantity of desserts is usually enormous. Rice pudding with cinnamon, Rabanadas (very special French Toast), pastries made with syrup or honey called Broas de Mel and Bolo Rei (King’s Cake).
The Bolo Rei has a special place at Christmas celebrations: this very rich wreath-shaped fruitcake covered in crystallized fruits and pine nuts contains a small trinket as well as a fava bean. Whoever finds the fava bean must pay for next year’s Bolo Rei.
On Christmas Day the Portuguese visit their friends and have a big family lunch of roasted chicken, lamb or turkey. We have no family here and, due to the pandemic, we’re not able to hang with the friends we’ve made. Maybe next year?
Also at Christmas, people drink port wine and traditional liqueurs like Ginjinha (jin-jeen-yah) and eat azevias and felhozes (Portuguese biscuits and sweets). Apparently, the party lasts until the early hours of the morning. Now we’re talking!! This is the tradition that Won and I will be adopting this year.
However, before we crack open a bottle of yummy Ginjinha to sip the luscious cherry flavored liqueur from chocolate cups (that’s the way it’s done) and dive into all those sweets, we really needed to get into the Christmas spirit. We started by heading over the river and through the woods to Évora, a delightful little city and capital of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region. The hour and a half drive to get there took us past beautiful landscapes that reminded me of Northern California (verdant rolling hills dotted with oak trees).
Once there, we were completely charmed! It epitomized my expectation of a quintessential European town at Christmas – the smell of roasting chestnuts filled the air and everyone was cheerful as they walked the cobblestone streets with their families and friends. Sweet Pea had the chance to share Christmas greetings with many dogs too. I bought Won a pair of cork slippers as an early present and we got a bottle of Ginjinha. (For those of you with whom I’m connected on Facebook, you will have already seen these images. I also want to say thank you again for all your kind remarks and lovely wishes for the holidays!)
It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But, we wanted more. Then earlier this week, we drove into Lisbon to see the lights of the capital. We made Praça do Comércio our first stop. There was a huge Christmas tree. The cool thing is that you can go inside the tree where it looked like all the stars in the universe had turned green. Either that or we were about to enter warp speed (sorry, I’ve been binge-watching too much Mandalorian lately).
While there, we attempted multiple selfies in front of the tree. Won started out holding Sweet Pea while I tried to take the picture. Total fail. We switched places. Another total fail. Then I got the giggles and it went downhill from there. Every picture was a complete mess! One of us would invariably be partially cut out, Sweet Pea would be looking everywhere BUT the camera, the top of the tree would be cut off, one of us would have our eyes closed/half closed, or we’d have had a weird look because we’d say something just as the picture was being taken.
After a few minutes of that hilarious nonsense, we completely abandoned the effort and walked under the historic arch passing a cellist who was playing Christmas music, up Rua Augusta – a pedestrian street lined with stores – all the way to Praça do Rossio. Earlier this year, I took pictures of this same park when it was framed by stunning jacaranda trees laden with glorious lavender blooms. This time their trunks were encircled, and their branches dripping, with sparkling lights. The famous Teatro Nacional D. Maria II was a sight to see with all its columns lit up.
From there we popped Sweet Pea into her backpack and walked up to Praça Luís de Camões in the Chiado neighborhood. On our way we saw dazzling displays of lights everywhere we turned.
While we were taking in all the sights at the Praça Luís de Camões, we met four lovely people who stopped to remark on Sweet Pea in her backpack. Louise and Owen were visiting their friends Victor and Paul and their dogs Ollie and Oscar. Louise and Owen, who currently reside in London, are thinking of moving to Portugal. We chatted amicably about how wonderful Portugal is and let all the dogs say hello. After parting, I snapped a few more pictures of the lovely praça and caught one of the iconic trams as it rumbled by.
It was getting late and we needed to get home so we slowly made our way back down toward the waterfront, through the magical streets and back to where we had parked the car. We passed through the Praça do Municipio which was beautifully decorated and filled us with all the Christmas spirit we needed. On our way home we talked about how grateful and happy we are to be here and experience all of this.
In Portuguese Merry Christmas is Feliz Natal (fell-eezh nah-tall) or you can say Feliz Natal e um feliz ano novo for Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. More than anything, my true heartfelt wish this Christmas is that you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy.
Desejando-lhe um Feliz Natal (wishing you a Merry Christmas)!
From Portugal with love,
Beth, Won and Sweet Pea