Christmas is a delightful time of the year to visit Portugal. The Christmas spirit permeates the city and the festive season seems to light up the early December nights. Christmas decorations fill the stores and vivid Christmas markets pop up throughout the country.
Originally, it was the Baby Jesus (Menino Jesus) that brought presents for little ones, but that was before Santa Claus got hired - now you can see him taking note of children’s wishes throughout December. In Portugal, Christmas is a time to be with family, eat bacalao, and attend mass, though nowadays, this is more of a tradition than a religious celebration.
Christmas Eve is the main celebration in Portugal, and usually, the nativity scene is set up in Portuguese homes on this day. In the evening, families gather for a large dinner, chatter, and drinks. This usually consists of a number of smaller dishes (Petiscos) and bacalao (cod) in any form as a main meal.
A popular way of cooking bacalao for Christmas Eve is oven-baked with potatoes, boiled egg, and cabbage. After dinner, an array of desserts come on the table, including Bolo Rei, Pao de Lo, and Arroz Doce. This is accompanied by coffee, port wine, and family games.
At midnight, the religious go to Midnight Mass, which is called Missa do Galo in Portuguese, and The Baby Jesus is also put in the nativity scene as he was born at midnightFor those who go to Midnight Mass, opening presents is usually done before or after the mass. Typically, those with small children will do it before midnight.
As mentioned above, traditionally, it is said that Baby Jesus brought presents for the kids in Portugal. They refer to the Menino Jesus, which means Little Jesus, but with the arrival of Santa Claus, it has become more widespread to say that Santa (Pai Natal) comes with the gifts.
Christmas Day is a rest day in Portugal and usually involves a lot of TV and lounging on the couch while the kids try out their new toys. A big lunch is prepared, usually consisting of oven-roasted lamb with roast potatoes which they refer to as Cabrito Assado no Forno.
In addition, the leftover food from the night before is used to create new dishes, most famously, Roupa Velha. This is one of Portugal’s most traditional dishes and is basically involves mixing together the leftover cod, potatoes, and cabbage from Christmas Eve’s main course. There are also plenty of desserts, just like the night before, with family and friends dropping in for dessert throughout the afternoon.
Dia Dos Reis is the day the Three Kings brought presents to the Baby Jesus and traditionally marks the end of Christmas. This day is usually celebrated with family, much like Christmas Day with a large lunch of Christmas dishes including salted cod. Children put out their shoes the night before and fill them with carrots and straw to attract the Three Wise Men and hopefully find them filled with gifts.
Christmas desserts, including the Bolo Rei, are served for the last time, and traditionally this was the day when the Christmas tree was taken down. However, nowadays many people leave the tree up for a bit longer.
Christmas food is important in Portugal, and some traditions are maintained throughout generations. Here are some of the traditional Christmas foods in Portugal not to miss if you travel there at this magical time of the year.
Salted cod is served in a million different ways, but at Christmas, you will usually find it oven-baked (or sometimes boiled) with potatoes, boiled egg, and cabbage. It's usually served at Christmas Eve, but also Battered Codfish Fritters are popular.
Oven-roast lamb and potatoes, usually served on Christmas Day. This is also more popular than the salted cod in the inland regions of Portugal.
Stuffed Turkey varies in how it is served from family to family; some stuff it with vegetables, and others with meat. Peru Recheado is getting more and more popular for Christmas across Portugal as the cod prices have risen.
Translated into Old Clothes, this is a dish you can find in Portugal all year round but is particularly typical on Christmas Day. As there are usually leftovers from Christmas Eve’s cod dinner, it makes for the perfect time to make it.
Roupa Velha is basically leftover bacalhau, potatoes, and vegetables mixed together and stir-fried in olive oil and garlic.
Not only is Portuguese Christmas food worth trying but there is an array of delightful sweet treats to taste, too. Here are some of the most traditional treats and sweets you can try in Portugal for Christmas.
Known as the King’s Cake, this is similar to the Spanish version, a doughnut-like cake with plenty of candied fruit and nuts. If you do not like candied fruit, do not worry, there is a Queen’s Cake version, Bolo Rainha, which comes without it.
While you can find it in bakeries and cafés throughout the Christmas season, it is most traditionally served on the Three King’s Day, the 6th of January.
Traditionally, it was a bean inside the cake, but now it is usually a small figure. The one that gets the piece with the figure has to buy the Bolo Rei in the coming year.
A Christmassy French toast-style delight. It is basically bread soaked in milk, eggs, and wine or sugar syrup with lemon zest.
The bread is fried in olive oil until it is golden and finally sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. You will find it across cafés in Portugal over the Christmas season.
A staple at Christmas, this is a delicious rice pudding with a hint of lemon and sprinkled with cinnamon. You'll find it on the table for all Christmas meals in Portuguese homes and it's served in most restaurants and cafés (and not only during the Christmas season).
Unique to the Christmas season, this was traditionally made on Christmas Eve with the dough left to rise when the family went to Midnight Mass.
On their return, they would fry the batter until crispy and sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on the top. Depending on the region you visit, this can look slightly different.
A dessert mainly consisting of egg yolk made to resemble a Lamprey, an ancient monster fish, except the treat looks rather cute.
This is a tradition that dates back to the 16th century and the little egg-monster is sweetened with sugar syrup and almonds. You find it in bakeries and cafés throughout the Christmas season.
Portugal is mainly a Catholic country where Midnight Mass, known as Missa do Galo, is an important tradition taking place at midnight on Christmas Eve. The main event during this mass is that everyone participating will queue up to kiss the Baby Jesus.
In some regions of Portugal (typically in Castelo Branco, Bragança, and Guarda) it is also common to make a bonfire in the parking lot of the church where people will mingle and wish each other Merry Christmas, or Fleiz Natal in Portuguese.
Kids will set out their shoes and fill them with straw and carrots for the Three Kings to find on the 6th of January. In return, the Three Kings will leave small gifts for the children in their shoes.
In Portugal, you will find nativity scenes everywhere in the time leading up to Christmas. Most homes will have one that has grown with generations with more and more pieces, and in shops and cafés, you can find small nativity scenes. But there are also large nativity scenes, including with live people throughout the cities and towns which are fun to watch.
A local tradition of Braga started with the banana shop, Casa das Bananas on Rua do Souto, wanting to make some extra money for Christmas. They set up a stall selling Muscatel by the glass outside the shop. When a customer asked for something to eat, he was given a banana.
The next year, the owner’s son brought some friends to drink Muscatel and eat bananas, as he loved the story. As word spread, it turned into one of the most popular local traditions in Braga. Now, hundreds of locals go there every Christmas to eat bananas and drink Muscatel.
Last Updated 3 November 2023