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Christmas around the world – Portugal

I love Christmas, always have done. I’m not a practising Christian (don’t hold that against me) but I just love the build up, the colours – red, green, white, gold, the lights, the christmassy images of snow-covered pine trees, log fires, reindeer, snow, candles, christmassy flower arrangements, the friendly Santa faces – it’s feel good time for me.

I spent six months in Norway in my youth working on a farm and one day in September we went to the mountains. Imagine my shock horror when the farmer and his sons killed “Rudolph” to replenish their freezer for the winter. I nearly died of shock. I was very English, very green and had only ever seen a reindeer on Christmas cards pulling Santa’s sleigh!

Here in Santo Tirso in Portugal, the Christmas window settings have been appearing slowly but surely. The local council have put up all the lights and turned them on (seems earlier this year but I don’t mind, they’re so beautiful). The loud speakers are set up ready to pipe out Christmas music in the city centre to get everyone in the mood to spend more money. I don’t mind, it’s nice and people only spend if they want. It’s an option which I don’t really go in for much but I still like the atmosphere it creates.

I saw someone’s balcony decorated with Christmas lights yesterday – the first but haven’t seen any Christmas trees yet. They’ll appear all of a sudden on 1st December. The Food Bank had their first collection yesterday and I’m waiting for the barrage of “give, give, give” to start but that’s part of the deal, right?

I’ve always enjoyed the build up more than the actual day which I find an anti-climax but again that’s OK. I have a almost a month of build up and only one day to get through so seems like more than a fair deal to me. We (the children and I) always used to make our own Christmas cards which was all part of the build up. It was so exciting. Cutting the white cardboard to the right size, folding it, tracing the image, colouring it in, decorating them with sticky gold stars, glitter glue, ribbons. A couple of years, I even embroidered (cross stitched) the special cards for the special people! Now, I wonder where I got the enthusiasm/energy from. Where does it go?

The actual day was always a joy when the children were small and we lived in France on the Swiss border so it invariably snowed on Christmas Eve (heaven!) and my parents always came over to spend two weeks with us. Moving to Portugal changed everything. Gone were the snow-covered Christmas Days. It’s never hot up here in the north in December but it can be sunny and warmish or cold and damp. Not the same.

The last couple of Christmases have been non events since my husband died in 2003 but this year, I’m determined to make a go of it. So next weekend, I’m going off to buy my Christmas tree, out will come the decorations which I might have to replace a lot of – one of my cats peed in one of the boxes!!!! – and I’ll light the candles. I made mince pies last night, the wood burner is red hot and a delight in my kitchen. There’s a blanket on the floor next to it with my two cats curled up, basking in the heat. There’s a chicken roasting in the oven and b*gger, the sun’s just come out … Foiled again!

Since I married Antonio, we always had two Christmas dinners. The Portuguese celebrate Christmas Eve as well as Christmas Day. Bacalhau (salted cod) is the traditional meal on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day lunch was always ropa velha (old clothes) which is a fry up of the left over bacalhau, onions, garlic, boiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage sprinkled with cumin. I’m not too keen on bacalhau but I like ropa velha. I used to do the turkey dinner on Christmas Day evening and we always had the presents in the morning on the 25th as opposed to midnight on the 24th, which is normal here.

They have a very silly tradition here in Portugal which dictates that whoever invites the family round at Christmas does a repeat performance on New Year’s Eve with exactly the same meal!

Boiled bacalhau, potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Sprinkled with chopped garlic and olive oil. Imagine eating that while the rest of the (wealthy) world is eating caviar, smoked salmon, Chateaubriand, whatever for a special occasion!

Apart from the meal (!), New Year’s Eve was always a delight. The local council put up a marquee in the town square and put on free live music all night. Everyone pitches up with a bottle of champagne in one pocket and glasses in the other. At midnight, we have an amazing half-hour firework display and then everyone spends the rest of the night dancing in the (freezing) open air. I miss that. It’s much nicer than spending a fortune on a show at the casino.

This year we’re off to Manchester to spend Christmas with mum and dad who have got past travelling, at least in the winter and with the help of the airlines who’ve dispensed with the already semi-direct flight to Manchester! We’re flying RyanAir to Stansted, picking up a car hire and driving up to Manchester – three tickets all for less than the price of one semi-direct with a four hour wait in Lisbon!!!???

I won’t be going anywhere near the city centre, will have a Christmas tree in my hand luggage and will be as stressed as hell on the 27th, driving back to Stansted wondering if I’ll make the plane or not because of a horrendous traffic jam around Birmingham. But we will survive…

See ya!

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