Christmas in Portugal

We arrived in September 1967 with a van full of goods and chattels to make our permanent home in Portugal. We already had a house in Albufeira – a very different Albufeira to the one that exists now. Then it was a pretty little fishing village with a charming market in the centre of town for fruit and veg with a fish market at the far end of the cobbled streets. The men’s colourful boats would have been drawn up onto the dry sand and the catch laid squirming and squiggling on the marble slabs of the covered-in area where they would prepare the fish any way you asked.

That year when Christmas was approaching we asked others who had lived here for a while what was the done thing amongst the foreign residents and it seemed that the majority held their festivities at the ‘Hotel Sol e Mar’ – so we decided to try it.

It was probably one of the most charming celebrations of our Lord’s arrival I have ever been to. The Portuguese staff and the manager had listened carefully to their mainly English guests and done their level best to provide us with all the goodies we expected to find.

A big pine tree was standing in the entrance hall which had been decorated with oranges and lemons, dried figs and a variety of home made biscuits and sweets, with a plaster Madonna at the top holding the baby Jesus.

The whole ensemble was delightful and the fresh smell of the pine plus fruit mingling with the cinnamon from the biscuits gave the foyer a welcoming and Christmassy air. Also in the foyer was a great bowl of steaming punch which soon created a merry mood as waiters ladled this potent concoction liberally into glasses. Our Christmas table was beautifully laid with colourful ribbons instead of Christmas crackers with pretty pink and white almond sweets scattered all over amongst pomegranates.

I maintain to this day that the Portuguese make some of the best down to earth soups in the world, however on this occasion the attempt to provide us with an English consommé was a disaster and tasted a bit like a couple of Maggie cubes dissolved in hot water, but the delicious fresh bread, olives and spiced carrots made up for it.

Next the turkey was brought ceremoniously into the dining room and paraded around for all to see before being removed for slicing and serving. Nicely browned potatoes accompanied the turkey and as brussels sprouts were an unknown vegetable at that time we had to make do with pumpkin.

There had been a valiant attempt at a Christmas pudding and we all gingerly spooned mouthfuls of stewed fruit with caramel sauce through our hesitant lips and found it deliciously different.

After this amazing repast we retired to the lounge for coffee, one thing that was fully up to our expectations, and a choice of liquors during which we were entertained by Manuel and his accordion.

Christmas Carols played Portuguese style truly have to be heard to be believed especially when sung by a well oiled group of ex-pats.

With no crackers to pull there were no awful Christmas jokes to read, however that in no way deterred the various gentlemen present to becoming very ungentlemanly with some of the jokes remembered from their colonial days. I can only say that it was a Christmas to remember as indeed I have.

Another Christmas that I have enjoyed greatly with several families is sharing the Portuguese ‘consoada’ which happens on the 24th.

First you go to Midnight Mass then come home to a glorious supper which usually has a ‘caldo verde’ soup to begin with followed by bacalhau, the salty cod which is an acquired taste, but very enjoyable in the myriad ways it can be prepared once you have.

Children get to open their presents that night, everybody drinks too much and nobody gets up before midday on the 25th when the eating starts all over again.

I’ve also held many a Christmas on my terrace in the blazing sunshine looking over the lovely view of the sea I had in Ferragudo.

The great thing about Christmas in Portugal is that anything goes and rarely have I joined the flock that heads off for England and the families they left behind, but this year that is exactly what I will be doing.

Knowing I love theatre, my daughter has even booked us in for a pantomime, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’

All three of my children who were born and educated here took off for the greener pastures of the UK several years ago. They now have numerous children and I want to be with them.

This will be my first Christmas without my husband who died at the end of June, and I know that being together as a big family will help us all. The children especially will keep us in the festive spirit, but, I have to stock up on winter woolies that I haven’t needed for a long time.

I’d like to wish you all a merry Christmas however you spend it. There are lots of churches to go to if you’ve forgotten why we celebrate Christmas and try to keep those new year’s promises in 2016.

By Jenny Grainer

Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1964. She is a freelance writer and her book ‘Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then’ is now in its 3rd printing.