Christmas and New Year in Portugal

If you’re going to be spending Christmas and New Year in Portugal, either as an expat or on holiday, this post is for you. Find out how and where to celebrate, how the Portuguese do things and what events are going on during the festive season (scroll down if you’re most interested in these).

Expat Christmas dilemmas

Compared to the UK, Christmas celebrations in Portugal can seem rather short and low-key, leaving some people unsatisfied and others relieved. In Portugal, Christmas really is a family affair so if you’re away from yours it might seriously affect your enjoyment of it. For good or bad!

So, should you stay in the relative warmth of your adopted country or wrap up warm and head back to your people?

My own family commitments have meant that I’ve spent most Christmases back in the UK, in a whirl of visits to family and friends. I’m not a fan of the festive period and find the whole experience quite exhausting and stressful. I would much rather see my loved ones at different times of the year but it’s not entirely up to me.

If you do plan to travel back to your home country, all I can say is book your flights/transport well in advance to get a good deal and keep your fingers crossed that snow doesn’t interfere with your travel plans.

 

Christmas tree in Lisbon, Portugal

Have a British Christmas in Portugal

If you’re staying in Portugal and want to celebrate the way you’re used to, it’s possible to get most things here. Especially if you’re willing to order online or get friends to send you things like crackers.

Real Christmas trees are available in Portugal but you have to be quick to nab one. They tend to go on sale relatively early so don’t leave it until the last minute. You can buy all the tinsel, baubles and other Christmas decorations you could ever want from high street stores. However, you won’t find crackers, cranberry sauce or mincemeat/mince pies readily available, except perhaps in the expat enclaves in the Algarve or ‘foreign’ grocery stores in larger cities/’food for Brits’ style market stalls. Order these online from British Corner Shop if needs be.

I spotted whole turkeys in Continente last year but you could just buy smaller pieces from the butcher if you don’t need that much. You may be lucky enough to track down some brussel sprouts, although they are most likely to be frozen ones. Parsnips are a rare find and you’ll be lucky to find frozen ones if you don’t plan ahead. We tried growing some one year but they were rubbish. Other people have been more successful though.

Port wine, of course, is plentiful. Stilton is usually available in places like El Corte Inglês or larger supermarket chains. There are plenty of other blue cheese alternatives and Portuguese cheese is wonderful so why not make the most of it. If you feel like mixing in a few other Portuguese Christmas treats, this list of traditional festive fare may help.

If you’re alone or would prefer a larger group of people to celebrate with, expat-oriented restaurants often put on a special Christmas or New Year meal so look for these and book ahead.

Portuguese family Christmas

The Portuguese do things differently. Whereas in the UK, and the US, the main celebration of Christmas takes place on December 25th, it’s different here. The family dinner of bacalhau (cod), special cabbage and potatoes plus a mountain of cakes and sweet things happens on 24th, as does the exchange of gifts and deliveries from Santa/Jesus.

At midnight, those that want to can attend a Christmas mass where they admire the nativity scene and kiss the baby Jesus. The 25th is a day to sleep late, have another family meal, this time with a meat dish, and relax as almost everything is closed (museums, restaurants, shops). By the 26th, it’s business as usual.

Portuguese Christmas cake

Known as Bolo Rei (King Cake), this is a far cry from the heavy brandy-laced fruitcakes I grew up with. These are a ring of brioche pastry with port wine, filled and topped with dried and crystallised fruit. They contain a broad bean and used to hide a little good luck charm but that tradition has been banned for health and safety reasons. Whoever gets the slice with the broad bean provides the cake for the following year.

 

New Year’s Eve in Portugal

The Portuguese way to bring in the New Year is by eating 12 raisins, one for each month, and making a wish with each one. Make a toast and wash them down with some espumante (sparkling wine) then enjoy the fireworks before dancing, and eating, the night away.

Funchal in Madeira has the most famous firework displays but last time I looked, hotels in Funchal were pretty much booked up although more flights have been laid on. Your best bet if you haven’t booked way ahead is to try the travel agents to get a package deal.

Mainland Portugal offers some great New Year’s Eve celebrations too. People gather in various parts of Lisbon for fireworks and DJs. Praça do Comércio offers great views of the fireworks over the River Tejo but you can also have fun in Parque das Nações, near the Torre de Belém or across the river in Almada. They haven’t had permission from the council yet but sometimes Castelo de São Jorge opens its gates to allow revellers to see the firework displays from all across the city. If you want to party the first few hours of the new year in the streets, Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodre are the places to be.

For the third year running, Porto is offering a free street party in Avenida dos Aliados with fireworks, DJs and big name musicians. In Coimbra, there’ll be a similar party going on in Largo da Portagem.

The place to be in the Algarve is Praia dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s Beach) in Albufeira, where the fireworks are followed by a concert, although there is plenty of fun to be had in Tavira, Portimão, Faro and other major towns. Further up the coast in the Alentejo, you can join outdoor revellers in Vila Nova de Milfontes, Sines and Porto Covo.

Many hotels and restaurants will offer packages for New Year’s Eve with meals, drinks, music and raisins included, or you can celebrate on a river cruise in Lisbon, Porto or the Douro Valley.

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