Portugal lively with Christmas spirit

Festive lights and throngs of people reflect the lively Christmas spirit in the Baixa area of Lisbon.

Christmas spirit is everywhere in Portugal in December. Markets in cities and towns sell handmade specialties and decorations. Churches and public places stage nativity scenes called “presépio” in Portuguese, and the streets of my small town of Tomar, ring with Christmas music.

December has been an unusually wet month, with torrential rainfalls causing widespread flooding in coastal areas, especially in the city of Lisbon. But the Christmas spirit survives. The town of Tomar, near where I live in central Portugal, set up a mini-winter wonderland in the Praça da Republic, its main square. A tiny train chugs around a snowy landscape, and a festive carousel twirls round while several market stalls sell artisanal items, sweets and seasonal drinks.

Of football and families

My Portuguese teacher recently told me Portugal is all about the three “Fs”, which stand for “Football, Fado and Fatima.” The first one needs no explanation to anyone who was alive during the last month when the World Cup dominated the sport world. Football (soccer in the US) is practically a national religion in Portugal. When I watch the evening news on SIC Noticias, there is about five minutes of spot news coverage before it switches to interviews and discussions about leading Portuguese teams such as Benfica. And of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, is pretty much a national hero.

Fado is the traditional Portuguese singing style, which has a slightly mournful sound meant to convey a sense of longing. Fatima is a pilgrimage site in central Portugal where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children in 1917.

There should also be a fourth “F” for Family. The family is extremely important to Portuguese people especially at Christmastime. On Christmas Eve, families get together to celebrate with a meal called “consoada”. The tradition is that they abstain from meat, so the main dish is salted cod “bacalhau.”One favorite recipe for the cod is “bacalhau com broa” in which a bread made from corn meal is used along with sliced onions and potatoes. This is often served with boiled potatoes and cabbage. In the north of the country, close to the border with the Spanish province of Galicia, octopus is a traditional dish.

On December 25, Portuguese families in typically resourceful fashion, use the leftovers from the consoada meal to make a dish known as “roupa velha” or “old clothes. I remember a similar sounding dish called “ropa vieja” on the menu in a Cuban restaurant in Miami. When I went to order it, I made a critical mistake, calling it “ropa sucia” which means “dirty clothes. Luckily the waiter understood what I wanted.

Sweets and other traditions

Portugal has wonderful bakeries where you can always find a tempting display of sweet pastries. Stores everywhere at Christmastime sell the traditional “Bolo Rei” (king cake) which is a round, rather heavy, cake decorated with crystallized fruits in red and green.

Streets and marketplaces in towns all over the country are festooned with lights and decorations. Seasonal markets selling artisanal crafts and liqueurs are typical as well. And what would Christmas be without a nativity scene. In Portugal a nativity scene is called a “presépio”. One of the best-known presépio displays is in the town of Penela, central Portugal. Set up around the town’s hilltop castle, it features around 200 animated displays as well as an array of street entertainment and cultural activities.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, or as they say in Portugal, Feliz Natal e um prosper Ano Novo.

And of course, don’t forget to follow my blog and get a copy of my book “The Power of Rain.”

A giant conical yuletide tree graces the Praça do Comercio in Lisbon at Christmas time.