If you want to celebrate Christmas without the holly-decked halls, sickly-sweet sugarplums, and shiny-nosed reindeer then Christmas in Lisbon should be high on your list. While this seaside city definitely won’t be covered in snow, the Lisbon Christmas lights and the tallest Christmas tree in Europe keep the festivities alive, alongside the presépios (or nativity scenes) that are scattered all over city. The Christmas treats are somewhat different here, with King Cake replacing Christmas pudding and bacalhau da consoada (salted cod) instead of turkey, but hey, isn’t it time to try something new?
Absent of battalions of snowman and frost-covered boughs, Lisbon opts for the extravagant when it comes to holiday decorations. Think big: the city has made its reputation in hosting the tallest Christmas tree in all of Europe, which has reached a record-breaking 76 metres in past years. This is no evergreen giant, though: the artificial tree is a lit-up affair, illuminated by a colourful light show.
In fact, the Lisbon Christmas lights are the city’s best-known Christmas tradition: the Portuguese city turns up the glitz (and kitsch) factor each winter, with glowing decorations along its avenues and in major squares. Much more impressive than your average string of fairy lights, the Christmas lights here are often interactive and seek inspiration from local culture – like the strings of light designed to imitate Portuguese filigree. Given that over two million bulbs are required to transform the city into its Christmassy alter ego, we pity the poor soul who has the job of official untangler.
After an evening spent taking in the spectacle, visitors are bound to hunger for something suitably restorative. But you’re not likely to find cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding, or other holiday staples here. Instead, Christmas in Lisbon means that Portuguese delicacies are the order of the day – and while it might sound odd, salt cod can make quite the moreish yuletide meal. Christmas Eve is the highlight of the feasting period, with a number of traditional local dishes making an appearance. Expect mountains of bacalhau, or salt cod – the most common Christmas recipe is bacalhau da consoada, which sees the fish married with cabbage, potatoes, and other hearty ingredients. Once that token to savoury food is out of the way, expect a flood of less-than-healthy sweets. Bolo do Reis, or King Cake, is the Portuguese version of Christmas pudding and comes stuffed with nuts and candied fruits. Other popular treats include the ubiquitous custard tarts, sonhos – sugary fritters whose name literally translates to “dreams” in Portuguese – and ginjinha, a sweet and sour cherry liqueur that’s local to Lisbon.
But the local traditions don’t end there: there are a number of other distinctions that make Christmas in Lisbon unique. Aside from the oversized Christmas tree in the centre of the city, Christmas trees are less common than presépios, or nativity scenes. In churches, homes, and in public squares, these small, living nativities are an important part of the advent. In Lisbon, the 6th of January, or Epiphany, is another widely celebrated holiday, with groups of Janeiras singers, or carollers toting songbooks – as well as accordions.
However you choose to celebrate, don’t forget to wish everyone a cheery “Boas Festas!” – this year, leave “Happy Christmas” at home.
The Portuguese capital’s sacred sites are where to discover the city’s historic charm. From a convent that’s open to the elements to Vasco da Gama’s tomb, discover the city’s history at Lisbon’s best churches.