Christmas in Portuguese-speaking countries
December is here! And one of the year’s most celebrated days is right at the doorstep, with all of its traditions and festivities: Christmas.
Widely celebrated around the world, many of its traditions and symbols are universal, while others are highly specific to each country. When “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by singer Mariah Carey seems to be everywhere in the United States during the month of December, Brazil has consecrated “Então É Natal” in the version sung by Simone to the tune of John Lennon's “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, while in Portugal everyone hears “A Todos um Bom Natal” by the Santo Amaro de Oeiras Choir.
However, differences in Christmas traditions go beyond the most commonly heard music, touching on areas such as religious customs, vocabulary and especially food, one of a culture’s strongest bastions. Portuguese-speaking countries are no exception: they all have similarities and differences when it comes to the customs of the Christmas season.
The similarities are many, since it was Portugal that brought Christmas celebrations to its colonies: cities and homes are decorated with Christmas trees, garlands and nativity scenes, while families typically gather to have dinner and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, followed by the famous “Rooster’s Mass” at midnight (or at noon on Christmas Day), named after a legendary rooster who sang loudly at this time to announce the birth of baby Jesus.
However, cultural differences can also be seen in other aspects.
One of the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese which comes out in the month of December is the name of one of the biggest Christmas characters from our collective imaginary: Santa Claus, as he is known in the United States and Canada, is called Pai Natal in Portugal and in Portuguese-speaking African countries, but Papai Noel in Brazil.
The name “Pai Natal” is not uncommon in Western European countries: he is known as Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Père Noël in France and Papá Noel in Spain. Brazil adopted the French instead of the Portuguese name, resulting in Papai Noel.
Another difference is the name of the traditional Christmas dinner, which Brazil calls ceia de natal, but which Portugal has named consoada (from the Latin word suum, meaning “together” or “in company”, and normally preceded by de com to form the word consuum). In this case, the difference is not limited to the name: consoada in Portugal refers both to Christmas dinner as well as the exchanging of gifts that comes after.
The celebrations of any holiday reflect a country’s unique culture, its customs and even its climate and natural resources, thereby adapting a global celebration to its way of life.
All across the country, Christmas dinner typically consists of roasted turkey, suckling pig or lamb, octopus or the classic salt cod with egg, potatoes and kale. For dessert, there are always chestnuts, the famous bolo-rei cake with crystallized and dried fruits, French toast, fritters, Portuguese doughnuts, lady finger cookies and azevias (Portuguese pockets) – always washed down with the best Portuguese wine, of course!
After dinner, there is the traditional gift exchange between family members and/or a “secret santa” session, together with “Rooster’s Mass” on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In the countryside, Christmas also has the queima do madeiro on the night of 24 December, the tradition of lighting a fire in the churchyard after Christmas Eve mass, where the community gathers to sing and dance. In some places, this fire is kept lit until Dia de Reis (or Epiphany, on 6 January).
Nativity scenes, trees decorated with fake snow, lights and Santa Clauses, gift exchanges and Christmas Eve mass… Christmas in Portuguese-speaking African countries is highly similar to Christmas in Portugal, with the one main difference being its traditional foods.
In Angola, Christmas dinner focuses on vegetarian dishes such as rice and cassava, with chicken replacing traditional Portuguese meats.
Christmas beverages, however, are some of the most distinctive highlights of its celebrations: kissângua, a traditional drink of the Ovimbundu people from southern Angola, originally made with corn (although the one made with pineapple is also extremely popular); capurroto, a distilled alcoholic beverage made with sugar; and kimbombo, similar to kissângua, but with a higher alcohol content due to longer fermentation of the fruit rind.
Another interesting detail is that Christmas trees tend to be cypresses instead of pine trees, due to the country’s flora.
In Cape Verde, one of Christmas’ most entertaining traditions is that the bolo-rei cake may have a present or a bean inside for one of the guests to find!
The Cape Verdean Christmas dinner generally consists of cabritada (stewed goat), xerém (corn flour mash), chanfana stew and the traditional rice dish djagacida, while dessert includes the coconut dish doce de coco and corn pastries, along with the classic French toast.
In Guinea-Bissau, where 50% of the population is Muslim, 40% still maintain their native beliefs and just 10% are practising Christians, it comes as no surprise that celebrations like Christmas and Easter are not religious in nature, but only festivities where families get together, and where decorations such as nativity scenes are not common.
The most common Guinea-Bissauan dishes at Christmas dinner are caldo de chabéu soup, caldo branco soup and cabritada (stewed goat).
In São Tomé and Príncipe, Christmas dinner features typical dishes with names like calulu, blablá, quizacá, moqueca and azagoa, while in Equatorial Guinea the date is celebrated with gift exchanges and lively songs, and the nativity scene is often represented by real people.
In Mozambique, children commonly make their own nativity scene figures using malleable white wood. Instead of the almost omni-present bolo-rei cake, it is sponge cake that does the honours as dessert after dinner.
In Macau, despite being located in a region where the presence of Catholicism is extremely small, its past as a Portuguese colony means that Christmas is celebrated both from a religious standpoint (with some Macanese people going to Christmas Eve mass) as well as a festive and even commercial standpoint, with Santa Clauses, reindeer, elves, Christmas lights and all of the decorations customarily associated with Christmas and inevitably found in large shopping centres.
In East Timor, Christmas celebrations were discouraged for a very long time due to years of Indonesian occupation; even so, some still celebrate Christmas with a dinner normally comprised of dishes with names like ketupa, sagu and kué rambu.
The characteristics of a Brazilian Christmas do not differ significantly from those of its other Portuguese-speaking counterparts: decorations of Santa Claus (“Papai Noel”), fake snow, flashing lights, nativity scenes, snowmen (even though it’s summer in the southern hemisphere) and Christmas trees are plentiful from north to south, where snow sometimes even falls.
As with all of the other countries described here, the real difference lies in the dinner, or ceia: roasted turkey is the most popular dish for the Christmas Eve meal, although tender ham, chester roast poultry and salt cod are close behind, always accompanied by Greek rice and manioc flour, the most Brazilian of all side dishes. The most popular desserts are French toast and tropical fruit, and the preferred drink is champagne.
Just like the Portuguese, there is a gift exchange and/or secret santa after dinner, and almost every city has a firework display to commemorate the day. Christmas does not actually end until Epiphany, when families finally take down their Christmas trees and put away the decorations that will not see daylight again until eleven months later.
Despite the linguistic and cultural differences between each of these countries, one thing is certain: whether in the northern hemisphere’s freezing winter temperatures or the southern hemisphere’s tropical summertime heat, a Portuguese-speaking Christmas will always include family, presents and of course lots of food!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!
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Text suited to the culture and language of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Portugal.
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