Christmas in Portugal: Common Holiday Traditions, Activities, and Celebrations

The Christmas season in Portugal is a joyous time filled with parties, activities, and delicious meals with friends and family. If you’ll find yourself in Portugal this Christmas, or if you’re hosting friends from Portugal and want to make them feel at home, read on to learn what Christmas is like in Portugal, including traditions, foods, and popular holiday activities.

 

How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Portuguese?

If you want to wish someone a merry Christmas in Portuguese, use the phrase feliz Natal. For a more inclusive greeting, you might choose to say boas festas, which translates to “happy holidays.”

After Christmas Day, holiday greetings in Portugal usually shift to focus on the upcoming year. You may hear people say feliz Ano Novo which means “have a happy New Year,” or melhores votos para o ano novo, which means “best wishes for the new year.”

What is the weather like in Portugal at Christmas?

Portugal isn’t known for white Christmases, since the location of the country along the Atlantic Ocean gives Portugal a much milder climate than the U.S., Canada, and much of Europe.

In Lisbon, December temperatures typically range from 48.9°F (9.4°C) to 59.5°F (15.3°C). The month brings an average of 14 days of rainfall, amounting to a total of a little less than 5 inches. Water temperatures are usually around 61.9°F (16.6°C), which most people find too cold for swimming.

How is Christmas celebrated in Portugal?

Christmas Day is a public holiday in Portugal. Offices and shops generally close up early on Christmas Eve to allow employees to spend time with their families.

Christmas Eve traditions in Portugal

Generally, Christmas Eve is when Portuguese families hold their biggest celebrations. Extended families typically gather under one roof for the night. In the late evening, they eat a large meal, and those who are religious may get ready to attend church for Mass.

Prior to leaving for Mass, families with children make secret last-minute preparations for the night, including laying the figurine of the infant Jesus in the family’s Nativity scene, placing presents for kids under the tree, and filling their shoes with small gifts.

The Portuguese call their Christmas midnight Mass service Missa do Galo, or “Mass of the Rooster,” because it marks the official start of Christmas Day—much like the rooster’s crow signals the arrival of dawn.

Missa do Galo is much like Catholic Mass services in other countries, but Portuguese churches do have one unique tradition. At one point, the priest presents an image of the baby Jesus, and worshippers come to the front of the church to kiss it.

When the family returns home from Midnight Mass, children believe that Pai Natal, or Father Christmas, has visited. Pai Natal bears a close resemblance to Santa Claus in North America, including his red, fur-trimmed suit and full white beard. After children discover their presents, everyone celebrates the holiday into the early morning hours.

Portugal streets

Christmas Day in Portugal

On Christmas Day, families often wake up late and then open gifts together. Children may open one or two gifts the night before, but adults usually wait. After everything has been unwrapped, the family eats lunch together—usually leftovers from the night before.

Normally, Christmas Day is quieter and more relaxed than Christmas Eve, and many people return to their regular work schedule on December 26, as Boxing Day is not celebrated in Portugal.

Common Christmas traditions in Portugal

The Portuguese have a number of unique Christmas traditions as well as more common customs that are similar to those in other countries. They include:

Presépios displays

Many families display Presépios, or Nativity scenes, every year and make setting up the figurines part of their holiday traditions. Larger versions also appear outside of homes and in public places. It’s customary to add the baby Jesus figurine in the late evening on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day.

Christmas trees

Although Nativity scenes are more common than Christmas trees, many families put up an artificial tree and decorate it much like North Americans do, with lights, ornaments, and tinsel.

Christmas ornaments

Christmas Madeiro

In Penamacor, young men cut down the largest tree they can find and use it to create a bonfire in the local churchyard. The community turns out to mingle near the warmth of the fire.

January songs

After Christmas, groups of people will go door-to-door singing festive carols and playing small instruments. It’s customary to invite them inside to enjoy a snack like roasted nuts or figs.

What is traditional Christmas food in Portugal?

The traditional Christmas dinner in Portugal is consoada. The meal typically begins with salted cod, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, and green vegetables. Then, families usually eat a course of more luxurious dishes, like wild meats or shellfish.

Christmas desserts

Christmas foods popular in Portugal include a number of tempting desserts, many of which are associated with particular regions.

    • Lampreia de ovos: Egg yolks rolled in sugar and molded into the shape of fish, a popular dessert in the province of Minho
    • Rabanadas: Portuguese French toast made by dipping bread in egg and cinnamon sugar and then frying it. Normally, a wine sauce finishes it off.
    • Arroz dolce: Sweet rice pudding
    • Flan: Caramel custard with a layer of caramel sauce on top
    • Azevias de grão e amêndoa: Fried pastries made of chickpeas and almonds
    • Filhós: A fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. There are many regional variations; for example, in Beira Province, it is customary to add orange or lemon zest, while in Alentejo province, people often incorporate grated carrots for color and flavor.
    • Bolo Rei or King’s Cake: A fluffy cake filled with fruit and nuts. A bean and a small gift are baked into the cake. The person who gets the gift is the king or queen of the meal, but the person who finds the bean must buy or make the King’s Cake for the next year. Some families enjoy the cake on Christmas Eve, while others wait until Three Kings Day, celebrated on January 6th.

As far as drinks go, port is popular during a holiday celebration. This strong dessert wine originated in Portugal and comes in many varieties. People may also sip Ginjinha, a spirit with a sour cherry flavor, or Amarguinha, an almond liqueur.

Flan

What are the best places to spend Christmas in Portugal?

If you’re planning a vacation to Portugal or are an expat living in the country, the following cities are some of the best places to be for the Christmas holidays.

Águeda

Águeda in Central Portugal is well known for its festival of lights. In 2016, the city also became home to the largest Santa Claus in the world. The statue is lit with approximately 250,000 LED lights and is as tall as a seven-story building.

Each year, artists also display new works dedicated to the holiday season as a part of the festivities. Typically, the city also transforms one street into a wintry scene using an umbrella canopy composed of parasols, tinsel, and lights.

Barga

The northwestern city of Barga hosts a festival of lights, but its biggest draw is the live Nativity of Priscos, the world’s largest live Nativity scene. Typically, it includes more than 90 individual scenes that tell the story of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. For the 2022-23 holiday season, the event will take place on December 11, 18, and 25 as well as January 1, 7, 8, and 14.

On Christmas Eve, the Casa das Bananas on Rua do Souto in Barga hosts the Bananeiro, a public event where the community gathers together to eat bananas and drink muscatel wine.

Lisbon

Portugal’s capital city receives a festive makeover for Christmas each year with light displays in public areas like the Praça do Comércio. The city is also home to numerous Christmas markets. The most well known is the Campo Pequeno Christmas Market, situated in a former bullfighting arena.

After browsing the nearly 100 stalls, you can grab a bite to eat at the food court and lace your skates for the outdoor ice skating rink. Plus the Ferris wheel and Santa village make the Wonderland Lisboa market a popular choice for families with kids.

Óbidos

Located in the Estremadura region of western Portugal, Óbidos is home to the Óbidos Vila Natal, one of the most famous Christmas markets in Portugal. A medieval village gives the festivities a fairy tale-like feel and makes the Santa Claus village feel very realistic for kids.

In addition to shopping, the festival usually includes numerous live performances, such as puppet shows, circuses, concerts, and magicians.

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