Possibly where you come from, Easter is just as simple as having children hunting for chocolate eggs, the Easter bunny and little else. However, for us here in Portugal, this is an important celebration in which family, faith and traditions are the main focus. To give you an idea, imagine a large table full with food, drinks or sweets, the TV in the background is on showing a movies about the life / Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and all the family is reunited for the main local festivities like processions, religious theatrical performances and a lot of faith related events.
In matters of faith, more than 80% of the Portuguese population identifies as Catholic, but the new trend is for younger generations not to actively practice religion.
In Portugal, Easter ("Páscoa") is the second biggest and most important holiday, so we thought it’s worth talking a little about how we celebrate it .
Holy Week and Easter Sunday Celebrations
Starting with the “Semana Santa” ( Holy Week, that begins on the week before Easter Sunday), it resembles more a somber carnival, celebrated largely outdoors with religious processions, Biblical re-enactments and Roman period costume. These processions are quite solemn to match the mourning of Jesus' path to the cross and eventual death.
One of the oldest rituals honored during this week is the “Compasso Pascal” that is celebrated all over the country. For the past 500 years, in older villages, a procession with a symbolic Jesus Cross goes around the village’s houses blessing them. Those who wish to have their house blessen leave their front door open with aromatic herbs (rosemary) or flower petals on the entrance and inside have some snacks or drinks for the guests.
The village’s priest rings a small bell throughout the whole ceremony to announce that the procession is nearby and is about to pass by your house. He will then stop at the houses wishing for a blessing and the inhabitants will kiss the cross as the Priest blesses the house with Holy Water.
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During the Holy Week, Braga celebrates the Easter season with many special processions that fill the streets with wonderful incense aromas, beautiful altars with flowers, lights and purple bands. One of these processions is the Procissão da Burrinha that takes place during night time. In it, the image of Our Lady is carried by a donkey, symbolizing Mary and Joseph and infant Jesus fleeing to Egypt.
Another procession is the Transfer of the Image of Senhor dos Passos on Palm Sunday - composed of the mass, blessing and procession of branches and the the famous Procession of the Lord "Ecce Homo" or the "Fogaréus" - which personifies the penitents and evokes the judgment of Christ.
Óbidos is known for the impressive festivals happening all year long, but during Easter this medieval village once again attracts the interest of many visitors from all over the world!
Two of the most known processions are the “Procession of Senhor Jesus dos Passos”, a procession characterized by the “gafáu”, which walks barefoot, with its head wrapped in a cloth and, carrying a musical instrument, the “serpent”, announces that the condemned will approach; and the “Procession of the Burial of the Lord”, where the village is only walked by the light of torches that burn in the hands of the youngest, placed at strategic points along the route.
Castelo de Vide
In the town of Castelo de Vide in Alentejo, there’s a celebration of “Blessing of the Lambs”. This celebration was meant to bless and protect the abundance of livestock and today also celebrates the spirit of coexistence.
There is also the famous “Chocalhadas” that attracts many tourists every year. At night, hundreds of people gather with rattles of various shapes and create a characteristic and enveloping noise that serves as a “prayer” during the parade.
São Brás de Alportel
In this Algarvian town, Easter Sunday is celebrated with a Hallelujah Procession, honoring the resurrection of Christ. It’s particularity comes from the men and boys make two parallel lines on the sides of the decorated rug in the center of the street, and carry torches of colorful flowers in their hands.
Among the many Portuguese Easter traditions, there is a particular one that stands out! And that is the tradition of godfathers and godmothers giving their godchildren a small gift! Usually, the treat is a Folar (a traditional Portuguese sweet or savory bread) in a way to keep the previous tradition alive of eating well and food abundance after the fasting period of Lent. Alternatively to the folar, it’s also traditional to offer easter eggs, sweet almonds and other kind of treats to the children.
In return the godchildren would give a branch of olive to the godfather and violets to the godmother on Palm Sunday.
Traditional Easter food
Everyone knows that when it comes to delicious food and pastry, Portugal is king!
In some locations like Sesimbra or Figueira da Foz, the farewell of Lent on Easter Saturday takes place with the “Enterro do Bacalhau” (Burial of Codfish) which is a theatrical staging that runs through the streets on Easter Saturday night and ends with a monumental cod dinner.
On Easter Sunday, roasted lamb often served with boiled potatoes and roast chestnuts (castanhas) can be found on most Easter family meals in many locations.
The big star of Easter foods in Portugal is, without a doubt, the Folar. This traditional Easter bread can be either sweet or savory, depending on the regional variations. It’s served with a hard boiled egg that symbolically represents rebirth and the Resurrection. In Chaves, in the Trás-os-Montes region, the folar is stuffed with ham and linguiça, a type of Portuguese sausage.
There’s also the delicious and fluffy Pão-de-Ló, aka sponge cake, which is a tasty, light and a bit airy type of cake made from eggs, sugar, flour, cinnamon and lemon or orange zest.
Last but definitely not least, are the almonds of course! Almonds are naturally associated with the white blossom of almond trees during the Spring and it’s the sweet that is most associated with Easter anywhere in the world.
They come in a great variety of confections: coated in sugar, covered in dark or white chocolate, colorful, shaped like animals, and many more. Nowadays it’s not just the godparents offering their godchildren sweet almonds, but almost every family member gifts one another this little sugary treat.
As you can see, Easter in Portugal is a big celebration and the traditions are still very well established. Even for those who aren't religious/Catholic person, it’s usually a time when families gather together to enjoy each other’s company, take their blessings and enjoy the delicious food and treats typical of Easter time.
After 2 years of many families avoiding seeing each other because of Covid-19, this year we hope this year you are able to celebrate Easter surrounded by the people you love and care! Happy Easter to those who celebrate it!
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