Feliz Natal! That’s Happy Christmas to all you un-Portuguese speakers. The holiday season in a foreign country. I keep thinking it ought to feel stranger than it does. We won’t be doing anything in particular on Christmas because we don’t know our way around yet. Then again, Barbara and I have never really made a big deal of Christmas. In years when we went to a family celebration, we always traveled on Christmas day because the airfare was cheaper and the crowds thinned out. In years when we stayed home, we celebrated a Jewish Christmas — went to a movie and ate at a Chinese restaurant.
It’s probably that everything since we got here feels strange, so Christmas isn’t more unusual than all the rest. Christmas is treated kind of similarly in Portugal than where we come from – but different. Our friend and realtor Paula insists Christmas is strictly a religious holiday in Portugal, being a Catholic country. I have no reason to think she’s wrong, but, frankly, we see the same trappings and decorations, the lights and displays as we’re used to. There’s certainly less consumer spending, but from the advertising and promotion, it doesn’t look like much less.
There is more of a homemade feel to the ambience. The decorations and displays are a little less slick than we’re used to. The squares in Setúbal are filled every afternoon of the last couple weeks with performances by local choirs, bands and dance groups, as well as outdoor performances of Christmas skits and plays for children. The quality of performance varies greatly; some are, well, not so good. However, we notice the worst performers have the biggest smiles on their faces. Their joy in doing it is at least as charming as some of the more polished performances. Sort of the Florence Foster Jenkins effect.
Speaking of charm, Barbara designed and cut out our Christmas cards this year, and I say without fear of contradiction that they’re gorgeous. She is as accomplished as she is beautiful, but then, everyone knows that. The photo below is for the benefit of all those not fortunate enough to have received an actual card.
The semi-official Christmas anthem here is, by my estimation, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You. It’s the only song heard on loudspeakers. I think so far this season it’s been played an estimated 15 million times. I’m petitioning the European Union for an international treaty to ban it as a danger to public health.
It’s the rainy season in Setúbal. The weather has two settings – clear, bright and 60ish, or torrential rain and lower 50’s. Like the proverbial little girl with the curl, when it’s good it’s very very good and when it’s bad it’s horrid. We went out one Saturday in the rain, bundled up in wet weather gear, and had to come back after two blocks soaking wet. Nevertheless, it’s a lot more tolerable than the polar vortex, ice and snow in North America.
The poinsettias are in bloom now. Not those little potted things we’re used to putting on the coffee table for a couple of weeks every year. Here they have actual poinsettia trees growing in the yards and parks, with giant flowers about as red as red can get. I never knew there was such a thing as a poinsettia tree. Just one benefit of the mild climate, consistently bright sun and, yes, occasional drenching rain.
In Portugal as elsewhere, it’s the eating season. Unlike the US, restaurants here are open Christmas Day and extended family groups spill out of them onto the sidewalks. As I noted in a previous entry, Portugal is the restaurant capital of the world (apologies to France).
An oddity is there’s no consistent schedule of what days they’re open (called horaria in the language). One place is closed Sundays, another Monday or Tuesday, another is open or closed whenever the proprietor feels like it. One place near us didn’t seem to be open for the first two months we lived here; but now they operate from 9 PM to midnight. If they had Prohibition here, I’d think it was an old-time speakeasy. Nevertheless, they’re all in business Christmas Day; they know which side their pão is buttered.
For holiday feasts at home turkey is popular – they call it Peru, I guess after the country — and roasted whole turkey a feature. However, Christmas is also an opportunity to eat more bacalhau. I would have thought they’d take at least one day off a year from that stuff, but it seems they just can’t get enough of dried salt cod.
The most unique feature of Christmas in Portugal is the hanging Santas. In the last couple weeks, we began noticing stuffed or inflated effigies of Santa Claus hanging from the balconies of houses and apartments. When I say hanging, I mean they sway in the breeze below window ledges and balcony railings with ropes knotted around their necks as if they’d been lynched by an angry mob.
No one here seems to have any idea how this custom began or what it means, so we can only speculate. It may have been an invention of the Chinese manufacturers who design holiday products to sell in their variety stores. The notion of a guy in a red suit breaking into people’s houses from the rooftops might have been more than they could comprehend. Since they already believed the round eyed Western devils capable of any atrocity, it was hardly a stretch (so to speak) to imagine that, once apprehended, Santa would be hung from the neck until dead.
When you think about it, it’s not so absurd. You’ve got a guy, probably a terrorist, possibly drunk, crashing an airborne vehicle into residential neighborhoods. Wouldn’t such a person deserve the ultimate penalty?
There may also be the medieval siege tradition at work. Santa Claus, the ultimate invader and scaler of roofs, hailing from a Northern European climate complete with Scandinavian reindeer, may be associated in the Portuguese imagination with the Viking invaders repelled by the warrior-king Afonso Henriques. The stretched-neck version of Santa is in celebration of Portugal’s heroic tradition.
My theory, however, is that it’s all a translation error. The story of Santa Claus comes from the Clement Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, right? (Though the modern depiction of the so-called Jolly Old Elf is based on paintings by artist Haddon Sundblom commissioned for holiday advertising by The Coca-Cola Company). Whoever translated the poem into Portuguese, when he got to the part about “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care”, misinterpreted it as “The Santas were hung by the chimney with care.”
Of such tiny errors is the course of history changed.
In any case, the Hanging Santas is my new favorite holiday tradition. I’m sure there are others like myself who believe Christmas needs this macabre touch. Santa lynchers of the world unite. It’s time to shake off sentimentality and celebrate your innate cynicism. Watch out, Easter Bunny!