Among all the rustic traditions of the Portuguese Christmas – the planting of wheat and barley seeds to sprout in cotton, the giving of clove-stuffed oranges as symbols of prosperity, the building of elaborate nativity scenes in homes and town squares – there’s one that really stands out in the Penamacor region.
Back in the days of compulsory military service, conscripts would steal whole trees from forests, not to decorate as Christmas trees but to burn them in churchyard bonfires. This somehow became a heart-warming custom that continues on Christmas Eve, even after conscription ended in 2004. Nowadays, the ‘stealing’ of the wood is more of an officially sanctioned performance, but the blaze itself provides a sort of primeval thrill in the hours before midnight mass.
The big meal of the season is called consoada and eaten on Christmas Eve. Relatively modest compared to the feasts of neighbouring nations, the main course is cod (the national dish) with boiled potatoes and green vegetables, followed after midnight mass by a more expansive selection of fried desserts like filhoses (pumpkin dough).
Connoiseurs of unusual sweets may or may not know what to make of azeuias (round cakes made with chickpeas and orange peel) and lampreis de natal, a fish-shaped pie that gets its yellowy colour and wobbly texture from an abundance of egg yolk.