Christmas in Portugal

Many Portuguese Christmas traditions have survived the urbanization and economic development of the country, though in modified form. Learn more about Christmas in Portugal through these 8 Portuguese customs.

Last Updated:
Christmas in Portugal
When it comes down to it, Christmas traditions everywhere are basically a family or community affair.  Even in a country as small as this one, Christmas in Portugal can vary quite a bit in terms of foods eaten and local celebrations, depending upon where you are and who you’re with.  Granted, there are some practices that are common to the whole country, in one form or another.  However, economic development, urbanization, and the broader trend of secularization across Europe has meant that Portuguese traditions born of economic necessity or with religious origins in another era have been adapted or modernized in this one.
An example is the annual madeiro (bonfire) in the town of Penamacor in the Serra da Estrela region, held the evening of the 23rd of December and rolling over to the 24th.  The historical origins of the bonfire are said to be Celtic, but according to the Penamacor city hall, the symbolic purpose is to aquecer o Menino Jesus, or warm the Baby Jesus, so the bonfire is lit in the town’s churchyard.  However, by last century the bonfire evolved into a final act of rebellion for young men who would be conscripted into the military, though today it’s an open-gender affair, and makes an excellent opportunity for twenty-year-olds to drunkenly dance around a flaming pyre.  People in Santa Claus gear and firefighters are usually in attendance.   
At the same time, Charlie Brown’s lament about Christmas “commercialism” has reached the Portuguese side of the Atlantic, too.  We now have the Guinness Book of World Record’s largest (and smallest) decorative Santa Clauses in the town of Águeda.  (According to press reports, Águeda invested half a million euros in the large Santa, “an amount that the municipality does not consider excessive.”)  Lisbon (and many other cities) hosts several Christmas markets throughout December, the largest of which, Wonderland Lisboa, held in the Parque Eduardo VII, boasts a an enormous Ferris wheel and all the Christmas tchotchkes your great-grandmother’s heart desires.  And of course, if you can find a parking spot in any Portuguese mall on a December weekend, the Ghost of Christmas Present obviously favors you.   
Still, plenty of authentic Christmas cheer has been passed down through the generations, particularly when it comes to comes e bebes, food and drink.  And even if all the twinkling lights don’t *exactly* recall the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago, they are delightful.  Read on to find out how the Portuguese celebrate Christmas in Portugal today with these 8 Christmas traditions they have incorporated (or imported) into the modern era.
If you want to skip ahead:

Christmas Decorations (enfeites de natal)

Like in the United States, one of the most ubiquitous Christmas decorations in Portugal is the Christmas tree.  Although you might be tempted to think that whimsically decorated pines are a US export, Christmas trees are generally considered to be of German origin.  (Meanwhile, the Puritans were busy fining people for festive holiday displays. They could never have predicted the Macy’s Christmas Parade.) In fact, the first árvore de Natal, or Christmas tree, in Portugal came over with the German king consort, Fernando II, who married Portuguese Queen Maria I at the end of the 19th century.  Larger, and more lavish, Christmas trees gradually began appearing in public spaces in Portugal in the years following this debut. Eventually, with growing consumer spending power, people started to put up a Christmas tree at home, too.  In 2019, that first Christmas tree was recreated and displayed at the Palácio Nacional da Pena in Sintra, a table-top pine with just a handful of wooden ornaments, showing how much things have changed. 
However, the varieties of pine trees that lend themselves to the Douglas Fir imaginings of yore are not native to Portugal, where one of the most common species is the pinheiro-manso, or stone pine, which is not really the shape Christmas tree enthusiasts are usually looking for.  That leaves the following options: 1) an imported pine from Northern Europe, and since there aren’t a lot of stores selling them, you have to know where to look and buy early before they sell out; 2) a fake tree, which is what most Portuguese do; or 3) my personal favorite, the “eco” choice of buying, sight unseen, a nearly bald pine tree pruned from the roadside by Portuguese firefighters trying to reduce the risk of forest fires.
pinheiro manso 1
Pinheiro-manso tree: Christmas Brocoli native to Portugal. Source: Arvores e Arbustos de Portugal
Pinheiro Bombeiro
When life gives you a roadside Christmas cactus….
Charlie Brown Christmas tree 1
…Make a Charlie Brown Christmas tree
Almost half of the Portuguese population lives in apartments, so there aren’t vast swathes of suburbia where Homer Simpson-like dads try to outcompete each other for decorating their houses with inflatable Santas and plastic reindeer.  However, city governments put on some quite festive light displays around town, especially to decorate lampposts and in rotundas.
Christmas lights
Christmas lights2
Christmas lights3
For many years, I was confounded by sightings of another decoration hanging from Portuguese balconies and in windows during the Christmas season that I could not wrap my head around: the Jesus flag. Uniformly sporting a baroque Baby Jesus against a solid red background, I thought the flags were the Portuguese equivalent of phoning it in, a la “I can’t be bothered to put up a tree so I’ll just fly this Jesus flag and people will get the idea.” As it turns out, though, the banners are a religious protest to re-center Christmas on Christ instead of Santa Clause.  Whoops! In an ironic twist, a 2023 holiday ad campaign from the Portuguese electronics and home appliance chain Worten superimposed the face of an actress on a talking flag in conversation with a decorative Santa.
Jesus flag 1
“Jesus is born. Merry Christmas.”
Jesus flag ad
TV Advertising campaign from Worten

Nativities (presépios)

Like in many Western countries, Christmas in Portugal has increasingly decoupled from the religious aspect of the celebration (see also: Jesus flags), so depending on the family’s location in Portugal and economic status, they probably have a Christmas tree but not a nativity.  According to a 2022 international marketing study, 87% of Portuguese respondents were planning to decorate their homes for Christmas, but only 41% indicated that a nativity was going to be a part of it.  I don’t have any hard and fast data on this, but if I were to make an educated guess, I’d say you’re more likely to spot a nativity in the homes of 1) older people, who make up the bulk of Portuguese church-goers today; 2) people who live in more rural areas or small- to mid-sized cities (i.e., not in downtown Lisbon or Porto); and 3) “old money” families with ties to the Catholic church. 
Although Portugal nominally follows the legal principle of separation of church and state, I’ve seen nativities displayed in government offices, though I suspect it’s not formally “the government” who set it up, but Maria Francisca in accounting.  Still, presépios can be a big tourism draw and city governments have gotten in on the action. 
The largest nativity in Portugal is in Vila Real de Santo António at 240 square meters (more than 2500 square feet), which you can view at the city’s cultural center for 1 euro. You can also see the largest “natural” nativity in Portugal located in Sabugal, in Guarda, which is free to view and conveniently surrounded by many opportunities for you to spend your Christmas dollars.  There’s also the largest “live” nativity in Europe open to the public in Priscos, near Braga (entry fee 5 euros), which allows a glimpse of Nazarean life under Roman occupation at the time of Jesus’ birth and where you can also buy what are undoubtedly authentic Jewish, Roman, and Portuguese sweets.

Christmas Eve Dinner (consoada or ceia de Natal)

Whereas in the United States, the main family event is usually dinner on Christmas Day (dia de Natal or just Natal) on the 25th – or maybe you were a child of divorce in the 1980s and had two Christmases, one on the 24th with dad, one on the 25th with mom – in Portugal, and various other European countries, Christmas Eve (véspera de Natal) on the 24th is the main event.  Christmas Day is more of a low-key affair.
Traditionally, the Portuguese sat down for the consoada dinner after midnight.  The historical roots of this practice are religious: the period of Advent ends at 11:59 on December 24th, and during Advent the faithful were supposed to practice some form of fasting, such as not eating meat, but that fast ended at midnight.  Today, fewer families have retained this dinnertime schedule, especially those with young children, who would be so wired and out-of-their-minds cranky tired at midnight that no amount of placation with YouTube could suffice. 
The most traditional consoada meal is a simple bacalhau cozido, boiled cod with cabbage, potatoes, and eggs drenched in olive oil and sprinkled with salt.  The cod is reconstituted from salted cod by soaking it in water several days beforehand, and huge sheets of dried cod are available in grocery stores for this purpose during the holidays.  (Well, dried cod is basically always available, though in lesser quantity than at Christmastime, and lends an…interesting smell to your shopping experience.) The Portuguese have numerous cod dishes, and I confess that bacalhau cozido is my least favorite among them. (Come on, would anyone really like boiled corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day if it weren’t for all the beer?) I must not be alone in this opinion because nowadays many Portuguese families serve turkey, ham, or some other meat or seafood on the 24th.  Depending upon what you ate on the 24th, dinner on the 25th is either farrapo velho, a mix of all the bacalhau cozido leftovers from the 24th, or something altogether different like cabrito assado, roasted kid goat, or leitão, suckling pig.
salted cod
Salted cod for sale at the grocery store
bacalhau cozido
Bacalhau cozido
For dessert, the Portuguese have legions of delicious egg-based sweets to choose from, as I’ve talked about before, but three of the most traditional Christmas desserts are probably aletria, vermicelli pasta mixed with custard and topped with cinnamon (which sounds terrible when you describe it this way but is actually very good), rabanadas, a sort of French toast either sprinkled with cinnamon or served in Port wine syrup (my personal favorite), and the ever-present bolo-rei, which I have declared the least tasty Portuguese dessert of all time, and I will go done with this ship.  
aletria
Aletria
rabanadas
Rabanadas
Slice of bolo-rei
Bolo-rei
In Portugal, and some other European countries, there was a tradition of serving 13 different desserts in honor of the 12 disciples plus Jesus at the Last Supper, but even if you’re attending a secular Portuguese Christmas dinner, a selection of 13 desserts wouldn’t shock anyone.  In some regions of the country, it was also common to set a place at the consoada for family members who had died or for the baby Jesus, though this custom is not widely observed today.

Santa Clause (Pai Natal)

Santa Clause is a relatively recent import in the Iberian Peninsula.  In Spain, gifts were traditionally given to children by los Reyes Magos, the Three Wise Men, on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, celebration of the biblical visit of the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.  In Portugal, gifts were traditionally given to children by the Baby Jesus himself, descending a chimney and leaving the goodies in a shoe.  But this all changed by the 1980s, when the Iberian dictatorships of the 1970s were over, both countries were opening up for business, and Santa Clause Came to Town.  Today, the Reyes Magos and Papá Noel (Santa Clause in Spanish) have been battling it out for cultural supremacy in Spain, and by some accounts, Papá Noel is winning. In Portugal, Pai Natal (Santa Clause in Portuguese) now reigns – at least when it comes to gifts; legend has it that Santa was helping out Baby Jesus anyway because how is a baby supposed to get down a chimney? You need an elderly man in a flying sleigh to hoist him down, obvs.
Leaving aside the question of responsibility for the presents, in Portugal traditionally they were opened well into the night. The order of operations on the 24th was typically midnight mass (more on this below), the consoada (which essentially means the “consolation” meal you would eat at this hour after fasting during the day, as was the Christian practice in times past), then open presents.  Honestly, this is asking a lot of an adult my age, let alone a child. 
Today, a more typical schedule would be something like dinner at the regular hour of about 8 PM, preceded by the opening of gifts if small children are present because otherwise there is no enjoying said dinner, followed by a reasonable bedtime well before midnight, depending upon age and constitution.  However, many families now observe the tradition of the consoada on the 24th but open gifts from Santa the morning of the 25th, à l’américaine.  In our home, we open gifts on Christmas Morning because Pai Natal, Jesus, the Reyes Magos, Father Time, the Tooth Fairy, and the Ghost of Christmas Past have a lot of coordinating to do and I need to keep the characters straight without creating any lifelong psychological traumas.   

Midnight Mass (Missa do Galo)

The Catholic celebration of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is called Missa do Galo in Portuguese, mass of the rooster.  There are multiple origin stories about the name stemming from the idea that a rooster crowed at midnight at the birth of Jesus.
Although Portugal has one of the highest percentages in Europe of people describing themselves as Catholic, at more than 80%, only about 30% attend mass regularly.  Even if more people go to mass on Christmas than on a typical Sunday, Missa do Galo attendance is probably not what it once was.
In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal was still under a state of emergency in December and lockdown restrictions on the number of people that could attend a family or public gathering, and how late people could be circulating at night, remained in place.  However, the government loosened these restrictions for Christmas, imploring the public to use “bom senso” or good sense in their festivities.  An exception was made for Missa do Galo, but it had to start by 11PM.  Not long into the new year, COVID infections and deaths skyrocketed, and the government was forced to close schools again and re-enter lockdown.  Portugal briefly suffered the ignominy of being the worst country in the world on the pandemic front.  Not to cast aspersions, but I’m guessing the problem was massive Christmas and New Year’s parties, and not a crush at Missa do Galo.

Caroling (cantar as Janeiras)

Historically, caroling in Portugal did not take place at Christmas, but during the first week of January up until the 6th, the feast of the Epiphany.  For this reason, the carols are called Janeiras, from the Portuguese word janeiro or January.   The songs aren’t about snow and mistletoe, but religious themes. Beyond that, the custom is broadly similar to caroling in the United States: groups of friends and family going do to door singing.  However, unless you live in an area where you know all your neighbors or a picturesque village full of tourists, you’re probably more likely to see people singing janeiras in pre-programmed settings sponsored by folklore groups or city cultural centers.  The singers may even be sporting traditional Portuguese clothing.
janeiras
Janeiras. Source: City of Porto
Of course, if what you really want to hear is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at full blast, you can do so at every mall or grocery store, and you can always grab a chocolate mint mocha at Starbucks to get your US fix.  But please, for the love of God, do not linger there.

Chestnuts (castanhas)

Street vendors selling roasted chestnuts (castanhas assadas) start appearing around All Saints Day on November 1st, with the high point being on November 11th for Dia de São Martinho in celebration of St. Martin of Tours.  The religious observance coincides with the fall harvests of chestnuts as well as wine, which is why a popular St. Martin saying is no dia de São Martinho, vai à adega e prova o vinho, or “on Saint Martin’s Day, go to the wine cellar and taste the wine.”
Strictly speaking, chestnuts aren’t a Christmas food or tradition, but they overlap with the season.  Often enough, wherever there is a December confluence of Christmas shopping, decorations, and holiday bustle, you will find castanhas for sale as well.  They are typically served in paper wrapped in a cone.  Simply peel off the outer shell, which becomes soft with roasting, and pop the chestnut in your mouth, but be careful because they are quite hot.  The texture is a cross between a Brazil nut and a sweet potato, and you can make a tasty stuffing with chestnuts, recheio com castanhas.
castanhas assadas 1
castanhas quentes e boas

Christmas markets (mercados de Natal)

Not to be outdone by the famed Christmas markets of Germany and Austria, Portugal has skin in the Christmas markets game.  A classic is the Vila Natal in the walled medieval city of Óbidos with its castle and year-round loveliness, and the afore-mentioned Wonderland Lisboa is quite the draw.  But pretty much every mid-sized city has some sort of Christmas market; the national tourism agency maintains a list of them here. Christmas markets often bill themselves as “authentic” and “genuine” representations of Portuguese holiday traditions –  my kids love the giant inner tube rides and mechanical holiday trains just like Portuguese children in the 19th century did! – and many of the sweets and artisanal gifts on offer have some history behind them. 
But if you want to experience something really authentic about Christmas in Portugal today, especially in a major urban area, I would recommend that you go to the most brightly lit, fantastically decorated area of the city center, buy some castanhas or pasteis de nata to munch on, stroll a couple blocks away, and just people watch.  You’ll see amazing feats of double parking while the Portuguese dart in and out of mercearias, local grocers, to buy serra de Estrela cheese and Port wine, or Christmas desserts from their favorite pastelaria or confeitaria and last-minute gifts wrapped in store wrapping.  If you’re lucky, you just might catch an old man whistling a janeira tune as he closes up shop for the night, while the world spins madly on.
Boas Festas! (Happy Holidays!)
cropped Favicon

Copying of An American in Portugal site content has been disabled.