Bacalhau and Pai Natal, a Portuguese Christmas

For most people in the States, Christmas Eve is a night full of busy preparations, anxious waiting, and hopeful dreaming. As the night ends and Christmas morning arrives, so also arrives is a day full of family, food, gifts, and celebration. In Portugal, however, as I’m told and as I have now experienced, the real magic of Christmas happens on the evening before Christmas day. Not only is it a night of good food and family time, but it is one for the kids as Santa Claus delivers gifts at the stroke of midnight. 

This year, we had the great pleasure of spending Christmas Eve with the family of some friends that we’ve known for a couple of years now. Besides being thankful for friends who welcome us as family, we are also thankful for cultural experiences that the whole family can enjoy. When initially invited, we had no idea what kind of adventure we were embarking upon. All that we were certain of was our excitement to experience another authentic Portuguese Christmas. 

You see, the previous year, we spent Christmas day with the family of some other friends. It was quite nice to spend the day eating traditional food, experiencing a bit of culture, and spending time with folks when our own folks were an oceans width away. So, when we were extended an invitation some weeks ago to spend this Christmas Eve with a different family, we were delighted to accept.

It was a little after 8 o’clock when we arrived at the home of our friends on Christmas Eve. We were warmly greeted by English “hellos”, Portuguese kisses, and a house well-prepared to spend an evening celebrating. The kids were quickly whisked away and doted upon, as Hodge and I were given a tour of the house. This is something that we find quite interesting. With the great majority of Portuguese homes that we have entered, we have promptly been given a tour of every room, bathroom, and hallway, leaving no corner unseen. To be honest, at first, we found this somewhat strange. This is not something that is common in the States, as most people seem to pride themselves on their privacy. However, I have come to really enjoy this Portuguese custom (if you even want to call it that). It is as if they are inviting you to feel at ease, welcomed, and a part of their family. Really, it is an invitation to feel at home.

After the tour, we settle in the living room as we strike up conversations and watch the kids play. As is typical when we meet new people, their curiosity often has us explaining why we are in Portugal. We share a bit about our faith and what we do. Often times, most people give a response as to what they believe in, and the dialogue continues, friendly and well-meaning. 

After some time, many laughs, and one too many translation errors, dinner is ready. We feast on bacalhau (which is codfish, the traditional Portuguese dish), turkey (for those who do not like bacalhau), several types of cheese with bread, and a smorgasbord of desserts to finish. We then make our way back to the living room, as we wait for Pai Natal (Santa Claus) to arrive.

It is explained to us that midnight is the hour of Jesus’s birth, so it is at that time that gifts are delivered by Pai Natal himself. However, his arrival is first preceded by song as the children gather to “call” Pai Natal to come to their home. Then, someone dressed in a red suit brings a bag of gifts or, as we experienced, there is a loud knock at the door and the gifts are left at the doorstep. The rest of the night unfolds as gifts are opened, toys are played with, and tired eyes eventually lead to bedtime. The next day, the family gathers again as they spend more time together, eat another traditional meal, and sometimes, more gifts are exchanged.

While Christmas day comes to a close in Portugal, the Christmas season continues on in many shops, streets, and malls as decorations are left hung and Christmas music is still heard until late January or early February. The following season, Christmas begins as early as the end of October as decorations are dawned, the malls fill up with Christmas shoppers, and the arrival of Pai Natal is anxiously awaited once again.