This is a particularly family-focused time in Portugal with a big meal on Christmas Eve, gifts exchanging, then on to Midnight Mass. On Christmas Eve the generations of the family gather together in front of the nativity scene, the presepio, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. A traditional supper might consist of boiled bacalhua (salt cod), with boiled potatoes and cabbage. There’s also arroz doce (rice pudding), rabanadas (similar to French toast), filhoses (fried dessert) and broas de mel (honey cakes).
While visiting Lisbon you’ll find many of the restaurants closed as people spend the evening with family, but check out the hotel restaurants many of which will do a combination of the traditional Portuguese holiday food and their usual menu. To finish the meal there’s the Bolo Rei (King’s Cake) which is a ring-shaped heavy fruit cake. Baked inside is a broad bean and whoever has that slice has to provide the cake for the following year’s celebration. And don’t forget to reserve a place at the dinner table for those who can’t be with you, a tradition in memory of passed relatives.
The best place to attend Midnight Mass is the Lisbon Cathedral, Se de Lisboa. Even if you’re not religious, this is a wonderful spectacle to be part of and these days is the one time of year most people go to church. The figure of Baby Jesus is added to the nativity scene after people return home from mass. On Christmas Day friends and family visit and there’s a huge roast lunch, before the city springs back to normal with the winter sales opening on December 26th.