There are many Christmas traditions in Portugal, some the same as the UK and some completely different! On Christmas Eve a celebratory evening meal (consoada) of codfish (bacalhau) with potatoes and green peppers is eaten. As is very normal in Portugal, the main meal is followed by a truck load of sugar filled desserts and treats, including a King Cake (Bolo Rei), which is topped with canided fruits. Bolo Rei’s contain a broad bean and a surprise gift, if you find the gift you can keep it, if you find the broad bean, you have to pay for next year’s cake!
As 94% of Portugal is catholic, families often attend midnight mass (Misa de Galo) after which they return home to find that Father Christmas (Pai Natal) or baby Jesus, has delivered presents and left them under their tree or by their nativity (presépio). Christmas Day is a quieter affair with families recovering from their late night and is seen as a time to eat leftovers known as ‘old clothes’ (roupas velhas).
Most towns and villages in our region of Penamacor collect a pile of wood so that they can light a bonfire outside their church on Christmas Eve. The wood is collected on the 7 December. Traditionally men who were conscripted for national service used to steal the wood, to try and build the largest fires outside their church. The bigger and longer the fire burns, the greater the triumph of good over evil. Nowadays the wood is donated but it is still considered a right of passage to be involved in collecting the wood.
Our local village collected a few tractors full of wood for their own Madeiro and held a small bonfire on the evening of the 7 December to mark another successful collection (any excuse for a party in Portugal). The bonfire was put to good use as the hot coals were precariously shovelled out of the raging fire and used to fill up a BBQ made from an old oil drum which cooked huge slabs of pork and sardines. Again it was a case of help yourself, everything was free; it was after all nearly Christmas time!
Penamacaor itself celebrates the run up to Christmas in style. The Vila Madiero (Village of Wood) is a spectacular sight and is reputed to be the biggest Christmas fire in Portugal. We decided to go along to see the wood being brought into the town and were really astounded at the scale of the collection! Humungous trees, roots and logs were stacked high on a seemingly endless procession of trailers, pulled by decorated tractors. The whole occasion is celebrated by drinking (lots of it), music, market stalls, a live nativity with primary school children and lots and lots of celebration.
The huge pile of wood is is finally lit at outside the church on the 23 December. We are told that the flames and heat are so fierce the firefighters (bomberios) are on standby and regularly hose the fire down to quell the heat. It really is a spectacular sight.
Merry Christmas! Feliz Natal!
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