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Celebrating Christmas the Portuguese Way

Lynsey Clayton

What it's like as an expat living in Lisbon during the silly season.

When you move to a new country, one of the main things you may experience in a very new way is Christmas. Every country has its own unique way of celebrating the holiday season, and Portugal is no exception.

With a great focus on spending time with family and less flamboyance than we may be used to in other parts of the world, Portuguese Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in the country’s rich cultural tapestry. From the beautiful lights adorning the streets, to the joys of wandering around the gift-filled Christmas markets, Lisbon really comes alive at this time of year.

Here are some of the things we’ve experienced at Christmas since living here in Lisbon.

The nativity scene

While not as prominent in my home country of England, one of the most cherished and visible Portuguese Christmas traditions is the Nativity Scene. You can find them in many large squares throughout the city centre, and often walk by them when exploring during the holidays. They are large, detailed and intricate, with lots of care and love put into them. For the religious and non-religious alike, they are an impressive sight to behold.

Decorations and lights

Christmas truly begins in Lisbon when the Christmas lights are switched on in the main square, Terreiro do Paco. This year the light show came complete with fireworks, and it was a spectacular sight to see. Interestingly, the tree here is also of the largest in Europe.

One of my favourite displays of Christmas lights is those adorning the famous Avenida da Liberdade. Each year the style of the lights changes. This year they are a stunning display of red and white hearts, which look to me to be inspired by Scandinavian Christmas style.

Festive markets

Our friends tell us that the Christmas Markets are a more recent addition to the festivities in Portugal. However, there is an abundance of them and they are so well done, you would think they’ve been established for much longer.

One of the most popular Christmas markets in Lisbon is Wonderland Lisboa, which is located in Parque Eduardo VII at Marques de Pombal Square. With everything from ice skating to a big wheel, there’s more than simple shopping to be found here.

The other, smaller markets are equally beautiful and packed with a range of food and gift vendors.

Sweet treats: Bolo Rei

One of the most iconic sweets of the season is bolo rei or king cake, a crown-shaped cake adorned with candied fruits and nuts. In Portuguese culture, this symbolizes the three kings, and is often shared with friends and neighbours.

Our Portuguese friend came to Christmas dinner at our home last year and she gifted us one of these delicious treats. It’s easy to find them in any supermarket, and we are easily able to find vegan versions in several locations.

Until a few years ago, bolo rei was sold with a fava bean and a metal/ceramic gift inside. According to tradition, whoever ate the slice with the fava bean inside would have to buy the cake for the following year.

Unsurprisingly, this came with the risk of a broken tooth, not to mention some questionable food preparation laws. However, our friends tell us that many families still bake them at home with these traditional items inside. Because who doesn’t love a broken tooth on Christmas Day?


In Portugal, Christmas is celebrated on December 24 and 25, with Christmas Eve being the main celebration.

On the night of the 24th, families and loved ones gather together to enjoy a meal of cod, cabbage and boiled potatoes. Although we prefer our own traditional UK/Irish festive traditions, if we were to partake in the Portuguese festive dinner it is very easy to make a vegan option with tofu replacing the cod. In fact, many vegan restaurants here sell a similar dish throughout the year.

Christmas concerts

This will be our second Christmas in Portugal, and we’ve attended numerous—often free—Christmas concerts at this time of year. Many take place inside churches, with wonderful classical performances. Some are held by candlelight in famous buildings, and traditional Christmas music from around the world is performed.

Portugal is a country with a number of rich Christmas traditions, and I have only touched on those which we have had a personal experience of. There are many more waiting to be explored and discovered by an adventurous traveller.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Bom Natal.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Lynsey Clayton

Lynsey Clayton is a freelance writer. She writes about the vegan lifestyle, environmental issues and sustainability. Lynsey lives in Lisbon, Portugal with her husband Martin and little black cat, Kitty.

Website: https://www.monsoonofrandom.com

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