What do the Portuguese Celebrate: a Guide to Portuguese Holidays
Categories: Your life in Cascais

What do the Portuguese Celebrate: a Guide to Portuguese Holidays

Publish date : October 12, 2022

Sure, some national holidays are just a great excuse to take time off work and clear one’s mind. Like in any other place in the world (I’m assuming), the average person doesn’t know what every single holiday stands for. Here, we’ll go through the ones that do mean something and how the Portuguese celebrate them.

A word, if I may, before we get into it. Portugal may be a tiny country, but it manages to fit numerous traditions, so I’ve made a selection of holidays and customs to share with you. It’s subjective and Lisbon-centric, but bear with me.

New Year: 1st of January

As the capital, Lisbon hosts the most attractions on New Year’s Eve in Portugal.

If you like to be one with the crowd, you can spend New Year’s Eve at Terreiro do Paço in Lisbon. A stage is usually set up for artists to perform all night long. At midnight, you’ll witness an amazing spectacle of fireworks. Other places where you can see fireworks include Parque das Nações and Belém in Lisbon, as well as the Cascais bay.

A more intimate program would be booking a table at a fado restaurant or tavern. Keep in mind that this is one of the most expensive nights of the year.

By the time the countdown is about to start, the Portuguese have a glass of champagne in one hand and 12 raisins in the other. You’ll see them eat one at each stroke of the clock (symbolically, each month of the new year). This will bring them good luck.

Carnival: in February or March

There is no fixed date for this holiday, but it’s always celebrated 47 days before Easter. Nowadays, it’s an optional holiday (up to the employer’s goodwill). The government usually gives public servants the day off.

This day is about expressing different cultures through colorful masks, costumes, and parades. Some of the most exciting carnivals take place in Torres Vedras, Loulé, Ovar, and Macedo de Cavaleiros. Perhaps the most genuine of them all is the Carnival of Podence in Macedo de Cavaleiros, where a pagan act is performed by caretos, disruptive men wearing colorful clothes and a mask with a pointy nose. UNESCO has declared Caretos of Podence as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Good Friday (Sexta-feira Santa)

Sexta-feira Santa always falls on a Friday, as the name indicates, but it’s not set on a fixed date: it’s the Friday before Easter. This is a holiday celebrated by Christians, a time to remember Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death. Moderation is instructed, materialized in fasting (avoidance of meat), silence, and prayer.

There are several places in Portugal where there are processions and where the Stations of the Cross are reenacted.

Easter: in March or April

It’s not just Easter Sunday that’s celebrated but the whole week leading up to it. Its exact date varies from year to year.

A popular ritual bears the name Compasso Pascal. Religious groups go out on the streets with a cross and the priest blesses some of the houses he passes. Whoever wants to receive such a blessing leaves their door open and offerings on the table (usually Easter delicacies, like pão de ló and folar, but also wine and liqueur). It’s common for people to clean and even paint their homes in a few places in anticipation of the Easter visit.

Easter also puts an end to Lent fasting.

Freedom Day: 25th of April

For some foreigners, the most compelling story in Portugal’s history is that of the Carnation Revolution, the bloodless military coup against Salazar’s authoritarian regime. Today, this is celebrated on the day that it happened, the 25th of April, also known as Freedom Day. In that spirit, people march down the streets (in Lisbon, in Avenida da Liberdade), remembering what was done in the fight for freedom and democracy. However, it’s as much of a celebration as it is a protest: the Portuguese take it as an opportunity to voice dissatisfaction with current politics.

Carnations are to this day the symbol of revolution and freedom. It all started with a spontaneous act on the 25th of April. A restaurant worker started giving red carnations to the soldiers, who put them in their guns and pinned them on their uniforms. Flower sellers followed suit, and soon there were carnations everywhere. So pick up a carnation and join the parade.

Workers’ Day: 1st of May

Although not specific to Portugal, Workers’ Day has a special meaning here. In part, this is due to a still-fresh national memory of Salazar’s dictatorship (which only ended in 1974). Then, there’s the importance of leftist groups — at the time, operating illegally — in the political opposition and, later, in the building of a free nation. This was a date that couldn’t be celebrated under Salazar.

Like on the 25th of April, there’s a parade/protest in major cities (in Lisbon, from Martim Moniz to Alameda) and rallies organized by trade union federations in the capital.

Portugal Day: 10th June

Its full name is Day of Portugal, Camões, and the Portuguese Communities, often shortened to Portugal Day. It used to be called Day of the Race (to restate the superiority of the Portuguese race, no less) during the Estado Novo dictatorship. Since democracy was reinstated, there’s been a less patriotic take on the commemorations.

10th of June marks the death of Camões, widely regarded as one of the greatest Portuguese poets and writers altogether — our Cervantes, if you will. So, on this day, we celebrate him, the Portuguese language, the Portuguese communities, and the Portuguese military forces.

Epidemics aside, there are official ceremonies every year, including military parades and medal awards. The president plays a central part in the ceremonies and selects individuals to be distinguished for their contributions to Portugal.

Fun fact: this is a date also celebrated by the autonomous community Extremadura, which borders Portugal to the center-west.

Saint Anthony’s Day: 13th of June

Saint Anthony’s Day isn’t a holiday everywhere, it’s a municipal holiday common to Lisbon, Cascais, Santarém, and other cities. Saint Anthony is especially important to Lisboners because he’s their patron saint. Side note: there is some controversy regarding this claim. Some people believe that the actual patron of Lisbon is Saint Vincent, but there’s no doubt that Saint Anthony is the most popular of the two among locals.

How is he celebrated? The streets fill with colorful decorations, people, music (a lot of popular music — not pop, full-on popular music, pimba), grilled sardines, wine, beer, and sangria. If you’re not planning to celebrate (and why not?), it’s best to avoid the historic neighborhoods in the center.

Christmas: 25th of December

As a predominantly Catholic country, Portugal celebrates Christmas with family gatherings (on the 24th for dinner and on the 25th for lunch) and gift exchanges. Religious families attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, missa do galo or ‘mass of the rooster’. After, they can go home and open the gifts.

When setting up the Christmas tree at home, it’s customary to also place a nativity scene next to it. You’ll find nativity scenes (big and small, simple and unbelievably elaborate) spread out across churches, shops, malls, town squares… Whoever attends the missa do galo only puts baby Jesus in the manger once it’s over: Jesus is born and the scene is complete.

On Kings Day, we’re free to take down decorations.

Other important dates

Corpus Christi: in June

Assumption Day: 15th of August

Republic Day: 5th October (with official commemorations)

All Saints’ Day: 1st of November

Restoration of Independence: 1st of December (with official commemorations)

Immaculate Conception Day: 8th of December

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