The celebrations of the Epiphany in the Portuguese village of Vale de Salgueiro highlight a tradition that provokes an annual uproar among foreigners: parents encourage their children, some aged 5, to smoke cigarettes. Where does this tradition come from in this village 450km north of Lisbon? What do the locals think? Bob, the Expats Personal Assistant tells you everything.
A thousand-year-old tradition
The locals say that the practice has been passed down for centuries as a "celebration of life" related to the Christian Epiphany and the winter solstice - but no one knows exactly what this symbolizes or why parents buy the packets of cigarettes for their children and encourage them to smoke.
The two-day celebrations, which begin on Friday and end on Saturday with a Mass, include bonfire dancing, bagpipes playing traditional music, and an elected "king" who distributes abundant wine and snacks at will.
The legal age for buying tobacco in Portugal is 18, but nothing prevents parents from giving cigarettes and the Portuguese authorities do not intervene to stop the practice.
Locals that perpetuate the tradition
Guilhermina Mateus, a 35-year-old coffee owner, cites "tradition" to justify giving cigarettes to her daughter.
"I can not explain why, I see no harm in that because they do not really smoke, they inhale and expire immediately, of course," Mateus said Saturday. "And it's only during these days, today and tomorrow, after that they never ask for cigarettes again."
Pagan and Roman origins
Jose Ribeirinha, a writer who published a book on the festivities of Vale do Salgueiro, said that the roots of the tradition are unknown, but may have links to the celebration of the rebirth of nature and human life. He explains that the village is in an area that adheres to many traditions dating from the pagan era. Since Roman times, during the winter solstice, villagers have taken the liberty of doing things that are unusual and are not tolerated during the rest of the year.
Ribeirinha also believes that the relative isolation of the remote village - 450 kilometers northeast of the capital Lisbon - has helped keep the tradition alive. He said that the surrounding region of Tras os Montes "has always been the farthest from Lisbon, the most" forgotten "."
Portugal, like many other European countries, has taken steps to reduce smoking, including a partial ban on smoking indoors.