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Christmas in Porto: The City Invictus

As the classic Christmas song by Andy Williams goes, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year!” and that could not be more true! 

It's December of 2023--the city is bustling and there’s a flurry of activity as people are trying to cram in their last-minute Christmas shopping. The streets are decorated with beautiful lights that brighten up the night, and a large, colorful Christmas tree has been placed right in the city center. 

The Christmas spirit is in the air. 

Church covered in blue tiles with Christmas lights
Church covered in blue tiles with Christmas lights

This small scene that I have just described is what Christmas in the City Invictus looks like. “City Invictus” (“Invictus” translates to “Invincible” in Latin) is one of Porto’s nicknames; it earned that name as it remained undefeated during a 19th century civil war which took place in Portugal. 

As with many countries around the world, Christmas is an important holiday in Portugal. There are many unique traditions and celebrations surrounding Christmas, as well as there being many beautiful Christmas lights and events for everyone to enjoy! 

Portuguese Christmas Traditions & Celebrations

One Portuguese Christmas tradition is that the main celebrations are held on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, and they even open their gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day! On the night of Christmas Eve, families gather together to have a big dinner, and once the clock strikes midnight, everyone opens their presents. 

Another interesting Christmas tradition is that the Portuguese people place a small nativity scene underneath the Christmas tree. When they return home from the “Missa do Galo” (a Catholic mass held at midnight on Christmas Eve) they place the baby Jesus in His crib. The “Missa do Galo” translates to “Mass of the Rooster”. One reason why the mass has this name is because according to an ancestral legend, a rooster crowed at midnight of Christmas Eve to announce the birth of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. 

Traditional Christmas Catholic Mass
Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster)

Portuguese Christmas Foods

As everybody knows, you can’t have fun celebrations without any food being involved! The more traditional Christmas Eve meal in Portugal is “bacalhau” (codfish). As the entirety of the Portuguese western coast borders the Atlantic Ocean, one of Portugal’s main food sources is seafood. For the Christmas Eve dinner, codfish –cooked in various ways– is served, while on Christmas Day itself either lamb or turkey is served. 

Another traditional Christmas food is the Bolo do Rei (King’s Cake) which is a fruitcake baked in a circular shape. The shape of the cake is meant to represent a crown, and its candied fruits are meant to signify the three gifts which the Wise Men gave to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are also other traditional Christmas desserts such as “Rabanadas” (Portuguese french toast), and “Arroz Doce” (“sweet rice”).

Typical Portuguese Christmas desert, "Bolo do Rei"
Bolo do Rei

Christmas Lights and Events In Porto

What makes Porto feel completely “magical” during the Christmas season is that it is covered in Christmas lights! Between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m, the whole center of Porto lights up, giving the city a truly enchanting look. A main attraction that draws locals and visitors alike is a large Christmas tree which is set up right in front of the city hall. Standing 34 meters high and 15.5 meters wide (approximately 111 feet in length and 50 feet in width), is an artificial Christmas tree made of lights that changes into different colors!

Watch our Youtube video to see the Christmas tree for yourself:

Set up throughout different parts of the city are quaint Christmas markets and mini fairs that sell all sorts of neat items and delicious treats; and another popular Christmas attraction in Porto are ice skating rinks! Placed throughout different parts of Porto, you will find both children and adults having a fun time on the ice. 

Until the 8th of January, 2024, there will be a multimedia show held inside of the Igreja dos Clérigos, and right in the same area, at the Igreja de São José das Taipas, is a six meter (approximately 20 feet) panel of the nativity scene that you can go and see! 

Nativity scene at the Igreja de São José das Taipas
Nativity scene at the Igreja de São José das Taipas

Besides the aforementioned events, there are plenty of other things to do in Porto during Christmas time. If you go to certain places (such as Starbucks for example) you can buy Christmas themed pastries and drinks that will keep you warm during this cold season! Roasted chestnuts (called “castanhas”) are also a tasty treat to try out. You can find vendors scattered throughout Porto selling these delicious snacks, their carts noticeable by the soft smoke rising out of their stalls, and the water-mouthing smell of the castanhas wafting through the air.

Castanhas (roasted chestnuts)
Castanhas (roasted chestnuts)

Though Porto may be busy during this time of the year, it’s certainly worth a visit during the Christmas season. As someone who has been living here for eleven years, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the city as lively and decorated as it is now. Every street seems to be completely decorated in lights; Christmas markets are filled with curious and happy visitors, and hundreds of people flock daily to get their perfect picture at the Christmas tree and to enjoy the sights. 

It’s like the whole of Porto has come to life during this Christmas season, and it feels as if one is living in some sort of a magical, fantasy land. 

Christmas market
Christmas market

Thank you for reading this blog, I hope you enjoyed it!

If you have any questions and are interested in knowing more, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We at Falesia Jovial are here to provide any assistance you may need. 

Have a Merry Christmas!

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