A Guide to Portuguese Christmas Food & Traditions

Portugal might not be the most Christmassy country, but what it lacks in wintery weather, it makes up for in colorful street decorations and delicious Christmas food.

You know Christmas is around the corner when the local cafés change their sweets display. Suddenly, the whole counter is full of Christmas cakes and fried-dough pastries of numerous shapes and sizes.

Beyond sweets, Portuguese Christmas food is simple, with a mix of seafood and meaty delicacies that vary from region to region.

Whether you’re spending Christmas in Portugal or just popping by for a visit, don’t let this festive season go by without trying some traditional Portuguese Christmas food. Oh, and good luck getting through all those sweets! 

Want to devour some of the most typical holiday foods in Europe? This infographic will give you a look at what's on a typical table in Spain, Italy, France and Portugal.

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Portuguese Christmas Traditions

Like the country itself, Portuguese Christmas has always had ties with religion. When it comes to traditional decorations, it’s pretty common to see presépios (nativity scenes) outside a church or even by the road in the middle of a roundabout!

For a long time, the presépio was the main Christmas decoration in a Portuguese home. Some have a small one with just the Holy Family, but others take it a step further, adding dozens of characters and picking up fresh moss to make the grass. As more people adopted the Christmas tree, the presépio took a back seat, but some families still have one.

Portuguese nativity scene
When it comes to holiday decorations, the presépio is about as Portuguese as it gets. Photo credit: William Miranda Andrade

Another religious tradition that remains alive here is the Missa do Galo. Every year, families come together at their local church to attend this midnight mass on Christmas Eve before opening their presents.

From mid-November onwards, Christmas lights also take over the streets and cities set up a big Christmas tree on their main square. In the north of Portugal, they also have bonfires known as the Madeiros, which you can see in villages like Cabeça or Penamacor.

Christmas lights in Lisbon
Lisbon all decked out for the holidays. Photo credit: PortoBay Experiences

The Main Meal: Christmas Eve vs Christmas Day

For Christmas Eve, we Portuguese like to have a light dinner, which we call Consoada. On this day, most of us abstain from eating meat, opting instead for fish or seafood dishes. The fish of choice is usually bacalhau, aka salt cod, the most prominent ingredient of Portuguese cuisine. This fish makes an appearance as a snack like in pastéis de bacalhau (codfish fritters) or as a main dish itself.

While there are endless ways of cooking codfish, the Christmas recipe is quite simple. Known as bacalhau da Consoada, this version combines boiled cod with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and hard-boiled eggs, all drizzled with olive oil. Honestly, it’s not the most exciting way of eating codfish, so some people like to jazz it up with a casserole like Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá or Bacalhau com Natas.

Pasteis de bacalhau (small, deep-fried salted codfish cakes) are a typical petisco and one of the best foods in Lisbon
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Portuguese Christmas table without cod in some form, such as these pastéis de bacalhau. Photo credit: Christian Benseler

In some regions, it’s also common to eat octopus, either roasted with potatoes or mixed with rice.

On Christmas Day, there’s another family meal that features at least one meat dish. It can be anything from roasted turkey to lamb or cabrito assado (baby goat). In the North of Portugal, you can also have roupa velha  (“old clothes”). This dish consists of using the leftover codfish from the previous night and frying it up with thinly chopped potatoes and boiled eggs.

As for drinks, this season is the ideal time to have a glass of Port wine or try traditional liqueurs like ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur that goes perfectly with Christmas desserts.

Port wine and chocolate
A traditional Portuguese drink like port is perfect at Christmastime. Photo credit: Anastasia Raykova

Portuguese Christmas Desserts: 7 Traditional Treats to Try

When December comes around, every pastelaria in Portugal puts on a display of Christmas desserts. Yes, you can still get your pastel de nata, but this season also brings many other delicious sweets that you won’t find at other times of year. Even the supermarkets have a section just for Christmas desserts, usually next to the bread or near the checkout, tempting you on the way out.

Some families are lucky to have a Portuguese granny who cooks these things, while others drop by their local pastelaria to pick up their favorite sweets before the family dinner.

From traditional cakes to fried dough pastries, here are the best Portuguese Christmas desserts you need to try.

1. Bolo Rei and Bolo Rainha

Bolo Rei is the traditional Christmas cake in Portugal. The name means King’s Cake, and it’s a reference to the Three Wise Men, which we Portuguese call Três Reis (Three Kings). Inspired by the French Gâteau des Rois, it appeared in Portugal around the 19th century.

It’s a kind of fruitcake, but with a softer consistency similar to bread. The dough also includes a mix of nuts and dried fruits like raisins. From the outside, it looks like a wreath, decorated with colorful candied fruit and powdered sugar.

There’s another type called Bolo Rainha (Queen’s Cake), which is the same but without the candied fruit. Both these cakes are usually available between Christmas and the Epiphany on the 6th of January.

Bolo rei (Kings Cake), one of the most typical Portuguese Christmas foods
When it comes to Portuguese Christmas food, Bolo Rei is a classic. Photo credit: Mpeinado

2. Filhoses

Filhoses are delicious deep-fried sweets made with eggs, flour, and sometimes a bit of orange zest or pumpkin. Once fried, locals dip them straight into a plate with a mix of cinnamon and sugar, carefully coating each side. 

There are different varieties of this dessert around Portugal. In Alentejo, they have a rectangular shape and a crispy texture, while in the Beira region, they are soft and rounder—but they’re both equally tasty!

3. Rabanadas

You could say this is Portugal’s version of French toast, but it’s much more than that. 

First of all, the bread is usually thicker, and there’s no syrup involved. To make rabanadas, or fatias douradas (golden slices), you have to soak the bread slices in a mix of warm milk, sugar, and lemon zest. Then do the same thing again, but in an egg mixture. Once that’s done, you need to fry it up until it’s golden on both sides. Top it off with a bit of cinnamon and sugar, and that’s it!

Rabanadas, a typical Portuguese Christmas food, are similar to French toast.
If you like French toast, you’ll love rabanadas. Photo credit: Francisco Antunes

4. Azevias

Azevias are kind of similar to apple turnovers but slightly smaller, and instead of going in the oven, they’re deep-fried, which gives them a crispy texture. They come with different fillings (no apple), but the most common ones are chickpea and almonds. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Portuguese dessert without a dusting of sugar and cinnamon at the end.

5. Sonhos

These soft doughnut-like balls are one of our favorite Christmas sweets, and you can find them all over the country. “Sonhos” means “dreams” in Portuguese, so with a name like this, you know you’re going  to get something tasty! The basic recipe contains eggs, flour and sugar, but you can also get it with carrots or pumpkin.

Sonhos, or "dreams" are small fried donuts and a popular Portuguese Christmas food.
Sonhos certainly live up to their name—you’ll be dreaming of these delicious bites long after you’ve finished yours! Photo credit: Edsel Little

6. Broas de Natal

Broa usually refers to the traditional Portuguese cornbread, but the Christmas version is very different. These are small oval biscuits made with sweet potatoes, cornflour, sugar, and spices like aniseed and cinnamon. After shaping the dough by hand, locals add an almond flake in the middle and brush them with a bit of egg yolk, so the biscuits get that shiny color when they come out of the oven. (The almonds are optional, but we recommend them!)

7. Lampreia de Ovos

Lampreia de ovos is probably the most unusual Christmas dessert in Portugal. It takes at least 20 eggs to make this flashy treat shaped like a lamprey fish. 

Lamprey is a bloodsucking fish that is part of Portuguese cuisine, but don’t worry—this version is the sweet kind. Egg yolks are the main ingredient here, followed by sugar and almonds. To make the creature come to life, people use candied fruit for the eyes and the mouth. It’s a sugar bomb for sure, but it’s only Christmas once a year, right?

This guide to Portuguese Christmas food and traditions will help you celebrate like a local.

2 Comment

  1. Christa says
    November 24, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    What transitional Portugese christmas pudding can I make in South Africa for 15 people? Please help.

    1. Devour Tours says
      November 25, 2019 at 8:20 am

      Hi Christa—from this list, something like sonhos, filhoses or rabanadas would be good for a crowd. They’re easy for people to take as they wish and don’t require any cutting or other serving prep. We hope this helps!

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