carol singing
Photo: DAVID BEALE/UNSPLASH

Christmas and New Year Carols of Portugal – Part 2

The traditions of Christmastide are largely confined to the period from the Eve of December 24 to the Epiphany on January 6. Between these dates – known as the 12 days – there is much celebrating and feasting for the anniversary of the birth of the Christ child when songs and carols are performed with themes both religious and pagan.   

This apparent conflict is thought to derive from Roman times when the start of the civil year was marked by dancing and feasting and included the exchange of small cakes called sweetmeats made from dates, honey and figs.

These were decorated with green leaf twigs taken from woodlands guarded by the goddess Strenia and it is from this root that the Portuguese word “estreias” (meaning the exchange of gifts at an opening) may be derived because, hidden in the cake, would be tiny figurines and coins.

Indeed, the Roman connection to the first day/month of the new year is with the name of the god Janus who is depicted as having a head with two faces: one looking back to the past and the other to the future. Thus, the word “janeiras” is derived to encompass the first six days during which the poorer countryfolk would form groups of singers who would go from house to house seeking gifts of food, wines and money from the wealthier gentry. If they were not given what they sought, a fracas could result with oaths and curses being laid upon the unfortunate household.

This was rather a contrast with the more peaceful carolers of the preceding Christmas week who rejoiced in the birth of Jesus by recalling the shepherds and animals who attended the manger when there was no room at the inn.

Of course, the Three Kings, or Wise Men, came at Epiphany to that manger bringing the portentous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was to commemorate their homages that the first Bolo-Rei was created with its multi-confection of glazed fruits, nuts and spices. Nowadays this luxurious confection is eaten from as early as November 1 when the great god Excess commands his worshipping consumers to embark on yet another spree of gluttony.

Here are two ancient carols for the mass of Christ which derive from our bounteous land:

  1. A traditional carol which is traced as being from Évora and thought by the musicologist Mario de Sampayo Ribeiro to date from around the year 1800.

O Menino está dormindo,
Nas palhinhas deitadinho.
Os anjos Lhe estão cantando:
«Por amor tão pobrezinho.»

O Menino está dormindo,
Nos braços de São José.
Os anjos Lhe estão cantando:
«Gloria tibi Domine!»

O Menino está dormindo,
Nos braços da Virgem pura.
Os anjos Lhe estão cantando:
«Hosana lá na altura!»

O Menino está dormindo,
Um sono muito profundo.
Os anjos Lhe estão cantando:
«Viva o Salvador do Mundo!»

 

The Infant Jesus is sleeping,
Lying naked in the straw.
The angels are singing:
“He chose to be poor for love.”

The Infant Jesus is sleeping,
In the arms of Saint Joseph.
The angels are singing:
“Glory to Thee, O Lord!”

The Infant Jesus is sleeping
In the arms of the Virgin pure
The angels are singing:
Hosanna in the highest!”

The Infant Jesus is sleeping,
Sleeping very heavily.
The angels are singing:
“Praise the Saviour of the World!”

 

  1. An older carol from the Algarve region and dated by the historian David Sequeira to the mid-XVI century.

Linda noite de Natal
Noite de grande alegria
Caminhava S. José
Mais a sagrada Maria

(Refrão)

Linda noite, linda noite
Linda noite de Natal
Linda noite, linda noite
Linda noite de Natal

Caminhavam p’ra Belém
Para lá chegar de dia
Mas quando eles lá chegaram
Já todo a gente dormia

(Refrão)

Bateram a muitas portas
Mas ninguém lhes acudia
Foram dar a uma choupana
Onde o boi bento dormia

(Refrão)

São José foi buscar lume,

Ficou rezando Maria,

Mas quando José voltou,

Já o Menino dormia

(Refrão)

 

Beautiful Christmas night,
Night of great joy.
St. Joseph was walking
Along with Holy Mary.

(Chorus)

Beautiful night, beautiful night,
Beautiful Christmas night.
Beautiful night, beautiful night,
Beautiful Christmas night.

They were walking to Bethlehem
To get there by day,
But when they arrived there
Everybody was already asleep.

(Chorus)

They knocked on many doors
But nobody helped them,
They arrived at a hut
Where the blessed ox was sleeping.

(Chorus)

St. Joseph went to look for fire,
Mary stayed praying,
But when Joseph returned,
The Child was already asleep.

(Chorus)

By Roberto Cavaleiro

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Roberto Cavaleiro first came to Portugal in 1982, acting as advisor to international investors. Current interests include animal welfare and writing opinion articles, especially with reference to environmental issues.