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Today we will make an Advent stop to the west, in Portugal. I’ve chosen Portugal today because they are celebrating one of the major Christmastime holidays there today.

December 8 is a special holiday in Catholic countries, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception. While it’s easy to imagine that it is the celebration of the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ, it’s actually the conception of Mary. The idea that she was conceived without sin comes from the 19th century, so it’s a fairly new holiday by church standards. In Italy, the Pope visits Piazza di Spagna and places a wreath of flowers at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Everyone in Rome comes out in their holiday clothes and struts the shopping streets, beginning the Christmas shopping season in Italy.

Portugal is a country that is small but has had a big impact on the world. Many explorers set sail from Portugal, colonizing much of South America. They were closely tied to the Papacy in the past, and remain an important Catholic country. (They also happen to have a great soccer team!)

To tell you a bit about the traditions of Portugal, I’ve enlisted the help of friend, colleague and all-around delight, Cristina Duarte. Cristina is a local guide in Portugal and also leads tours for Rick Steves. She’s a ton of fun, and so when I thought of people who would know how to celebrate, she came right to mind.

Dear Sarah, We normally do the Christmas tree December the 8, Saint Conception day. The tree, in most of the places is an artificial one. We also do the Presépio, “creche” (there is a photo of my own). Christmas tree is a very globalize concept but the setting of the crèche is very personal. We still want to pass the idea that we are celebration the birth of Christ. Catholic traditions and what we see through TV sometimes make strange mixtures, so that’s why we both have Santa, (it sells better ?), but indoors is baby Jesus.  

-Although is a mainly Catholic country not everyone goes to the mass on Christmas eve. 

-Despite the fact that with have 365 ways of cooking bacalhau (salt cod) in Christmas Eve it is simply boiled with vegetables. Normally, children don’t like it that’s why, now, we cook some other things like octopus or even Turkey.  

-There is a a big difference between city and country side and as you can imagine in the city we can’t do big fires in the streets ?, but the idea of the big wood burning is replaced by its representation in form of a cake ( Tronco de Natal)

As a matter of fact our main course is rather simple, as I mentioned before, but desserts are very very very rich. From December 25 until 6 January a table is always set with different nuts, Bolo Rei ( king’s cake) and some others delicacies. It’s the time that people visit each other, either to take presents or to wish a New year, so I believe it is a way of courtesy. 

From the eve of 5 to 6 January in the country side or in some churches in the big cities there are groups of people singing the “Janeiras”. It represents the arrival of the 3 wise men to Bethlehem. There are no gifts but people are invited to come in and drink and eat Bolo Rei–the name comes from the crown of the 3 wise men’s crowns and explains the shape and the candy fruit representing jems. 

I think that I’ve said everything? Feliz Natal!

Sounds like a fantastic celebration in Portugal, although I’d probably skip the cod! Today’s assignments for Advent? Color in Portugal red, white and green. Since today is the day that the Portuguese decorate their Christmas trees, you might do the same. If your tree is already up, add a little piece of Portugal by printing the flag below. You can attach a piece of yarn and hang it on your tree to honor Portugal…and their great win in the Euro cup soccer match this year! Feliz Natal indeed.

Cristina Duarte is a tour guide, mom and avid runner. Her smile and infectious happiness can be found in Lisbon, where she guides walking tours, rain or shine. She can be found at

AWS Staff

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  • Kathy Noll says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the wine from Portugal 😉 I found it interesting that Cristina said most of the people have artificial trees. Somehow I pictured real trees all over Europe and the whole plastic commercialization only here in the US.

  • Barbara says:

    Loving these wonderful glimpses . . . it’s been a treat each day. Thank you.

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