Popular Festivities in Portugal
Portuguese like to celebrate. We all like to get together with friends and family, eat, drink and dance. If there are fireworks involved, that’s the cherry on top of the cake. Popular Festivities in Portugal happen especially in the month of June. They are the perfect way to welcome summer and to celebrate life!
From North to South of Portugal these Festivities have particular features. Get ready to party all night long and go to bed after sunrise!
Santo António (Saint Anthony)
Born in Portugal, the patron saint of Lisbon was a man of great knowledge. Also known as Saint Anthony of Pádua (Italy), his life was dedicated to the study of the Bible and sciences. In 1220 he became a Franciscan monk and traveled around Europe. He was nominated a master in Theology. He was recognized as one of the greatest intellectuals in the pre-University period in Portugal. A man of immense culture and one of the most respected figures of the Catholic Church in his time. He died in Padua, Italy, on June 13, 1231. This is the date we celebrate his life, in Lisbon.
Santo António – Lisbon
This is one of the most emblematic popular festivities in Portugal. Lisbon stops for a night and a day. Everybody goes out to the streets to celebrate the patron saint of the city. The festivities reach their highest point on the evening of June 12, with a parade, at Avenida da Liberdade. This is called ‘Marchas Populares’ (popular marches). Groups from all the popular neighborhoods in Lisbon prepare a song and a march to present to a jury. They present their march and then there’s the election of the Best March in Lisbon. The parade is filled with color and rhythm and they always try to bring out the traditions and special features of their neighborhoods.
Around town and on each quarter you’ll find people on the streets, eating, drinking, dancing and having fun. All the traditional venues have a stage for concerts and popular music will fill the air, along with the smell of grilled sardines and peppers.
On the afternoon of June 13, a procession in homage to Saint Anthony takes place, through the streets around the cathedral. Saint Anthony is believed to foster marriages so there are a lot of couples who get married on this date (or the previous days) and a lot of singles (especially women) who ask the saint for a spouse.
Walk from the Castle to Mouraria, going through Graça and Alfama. Go up to Bairro Alto and enjoy the many concerts. All the streets will be decorated with colored garlands. This will be a long night. Get ready to walk around town, up and down the seven hills and dance!
São João (Saint John)
Celts occupied the grounds that are now part of the Portuguese territory. They were polytheists and celebrated the Summer Solstice around the 24th of June. This was a celebration of Mother Nature and included bonfires and the burning of aromatic herbs as an offering to the deity.
The bonfires were lit to ward off the evil eye and to evoke protection for the year ahead. They were also lit to pay homage to the fecundity of humans and cultures, as Nature provides all we need to survive. The herbs were burnt in praise of fire, an essential element to daily life.
Saint John Baptist was an itinerant preacher, defending that all people should exercise virtue and righteousness. He used baptism as a symbol of the purification of the soul in his messianic movement. On the 24th of June, we celebrate his birth.
As it happens with other dates, both pagan and religious celebrations combine.
São João – Porto
Saint John is the biggest popular celebration in Porto and one of the most emblematic Popular Festivities in Portugal. The streets are filled with people. There are no social classes or statuses. Celebrations start around sunset and last up to the sunrise. This is the longest night of the year in Porto.
There are other cities in Portugal that celebrate the same saint. Nevertheless, none of them are so picturesque as Porto’s festivities. Leek and soft plastic hammers are two iconic elements of the night. The D.Luís bridge fireworks are mandatory. As dancing at every small venue, to the sound of popular bands.
Now that you are frowning and thinking “leek? Soft plastic hammers? What kind of festivities are these?!” we’ll let you in on the ground rules to enjoy São João at Porto. First things first: wear comfortable clothes and shoes. There’s a lot of walking and dancing involved so make sure you won’t be complaining about sore feet! Bring something warm (though light) to wear, preferably waterproof, as ‘orvalhadas’ (very light and steady rain, almost like heavy moist mist) are very likely to occur as the sun rises.
Secondly, you’ll need to get a leek flower. With the long foot. The leek has the power of warding off the evil eye. How do we use it? Well, we carry it around with us all night long and give it to sniff to everyone who crosses paths with you. The problem is: it smells! Bad! So everyone will avoid it. What makes it more fun! You have to just put it in front of people’s noses! They will frown and make weird faces but they will go along with it! Plus, this is for their own good! Isn’t it?
Thirdly, the soft plastic hammer. Colorful and noisy hammers. Sold all around town. These started to be used as a substitute for the leek flower. They have a whistle that sounds whenever you hit someone’s head. Get along and start hitting people’s heads! Now that you’re all geared up, let’s talk about the itinerary. We know this sounds like a lot of work for just one night but take our word for it: it will be memorable!
Porto’s city center and the historical area will be crowded. There are a couple of places that are traditionally the epicenter of the festivities:
Fointainhas is known as THE spot to celebrate São João. There are small restaurants serving grilled sardines and peppers, merry-go-rounds, a stage for music concerts, small bars and funnel cake stands. It is located on the top of a hill, therefore, you have an amazing view of the river Douro and is an excellent spot to watch the fireworks at midnight – if you get there early!
Ribeira is the heart of the historical center. This is where everybody wants to be to have a privileged view of the fireworks, that are installed on the D.Luís bridge and on boats on the river. All the restaurants serve the traditional meal: grilled sardines and peppers – we’ll tell you more about the menu later on! The fireworks are the high point of the night. It’s incredible to watch all the colors in the sky, the cascade falling from the bridge and the explosions of shapes and colors coming from the river.
Miragaia is one of the most typical neighborhoods in Porto. And is usually where everybody ends up. There’s music, drinks, the locals and visitors. All gather to enjoy an evening of amusement and revelry. You’ll notice the narrow tall houses, all decorated with paper balloons and colorful paper garlands.
It is a tradition to walk from Fontainhas to Miragaia, stopping along the way to have a drink and dance. It’s not a short walk and it will take a long time to do it but it will be fun and it’s part of the experience!
There is one special feature that makes the Saint John night in Porto magical. If you look up at the sky you’ll see thousands of small light spots. These are paper balloons. The locals usually buy them at small stationary stores. They carry them around and find a spot where they light them and release them in the air. Be aware that this involves dealing with fire, so if you want to try this, please do so in an area where there are no houses or trees around.
São João – Braga
Braga is another city where São João is celebrated in grandeur. The streets are all decorated, people are out and about, and there are some biblical scenes represented along the Este River, in the center of the city: Christ’s baptism and Saint Christopher, with baby Jesus on his shoulder, on the waters of the Este River.
In the past, people from all the villages around Braga would prepare a picnic and walk towards the city center, singing traditional songs, along the way. When they reached the Braga’s center, they would all get together and ‘march’ towards the city’s park, singing, and dancing, finishing their march at the park, where they would all eat and drink, and celebrate together
São Pedro (Saint Peter)
Saint Peter was a fisherman. According to the Bible, he met Jesus when he asked him to use one of his boats to preach to a crowd that was following him. After that, Jesus told Peter to go out to fish, at night, a bit further from the coast. Peter said he had tried it before but he couldn’t catch any fish. Jesus insisted. On that night, Peter caught so much fish that the nets almost burst. In a gesture of humility and amazement, Peter prostrated himself before Jesus and asked him to turn away from him, as he was a sinner. Jesus, therefore, encouraged him to follow him, as he would turn him into a ‘fisher of man’.
Peter was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He was also the first Bishop of Rome, meaning he was the first Pope. According to the Catholic Church, Peter is the holder of the longest pontificate in history (around 37 years). He is the patron saint of Popes and fishermen. His liturgical celebration is on the 29th of June.
São Pedro – Afurada
São Pedro da Afurada is a small fishermen village in Vila Nova de Gaia. It is located near the mouth of the Douro river, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Saint Peter is its patron saint, hence the name ‘São Pedro’.
On the 29th of June, there are processions dedicated to the patron. During the religious processions, people carry images of saints (some of them of natural size), for worship. They also make offerings. During the processions, the locals usually wear their traditional fishermen and fisherwomen clothes, as a sign of respect for their patron saint. As the procession passes along the Douro river, all the fishing boats are blessed.
If you walk around Afurada you will notice that there is an image of Saint Peter at almost every house façade. There used to be a church, in name of Saint Peter, at the village, but it was destroyed in a flood. At the center of the village, you’ll find images of other saints, at the place where the church once stood, but Saint Peter’s image is the center of attention.
As it happens in other popular festivities in Portugal, at Afurada, Saint Peter is celebrated with music and food, dancing and fireworks..
São Pedro – Póvoa de Varzim
On the night of June 28 to 29, at Póvoa de Varzim, people are out on the streets, there is a parade and bonfires around town. Youngsters jump the bonfires. Elders enjoy the parade, in a competition between the traditional quarters (similar to what happens in Lisbon). Every quarter builds a throne for Saint Peter. There is a real competition atmosphere between the locals from different quarters. All the windows are decorated and people walk around to appreciate the neighborhoods.
Portuguese Festivities Menu
As we mentioned before, there is a traditional menu for the festivities. It is the same from North to South of the country. It includes: grilled sardines and peppers, ‘broa de Avintes’ (a type of cornbread, dark and heavy, from the village of Avintes) or bread, and ‘caldo verde’ (a broth made of water, potato, collard greens, olive oil and salt) with a slice of ‘chouriço’.
As you walk the streets of Lisbon, Porto, Braga (and all cities where popular festivities take place), you’ll find ‘Manjerico’ stands. ‘Manjerico’ is a (newly sprouted) basil plant. This is a symbol of love. Tradition says that women are not supposed to buy a ‘Manjerico’. Their boyfriends have to buy them one. She’s supposed to take care of it for a year. On that date, it should be replaced for a new one. It’s like a love vow, between people in love.
You are not supposed to smell the plant directly. If you do so, it will dry fast and die. Put your hand, gently, on top of the plant and tap it. Then, smell your palm. It smells deliciously fresh. ‘Manjericos’ are usually decorated with a papier-mache flower (usually a carnation-like flower) and a small flag, with a verse, allusive to love.
This is just a small list of popular festivities in Portugal. There are plenty of others, celebrated throughout the country, from North to South. These three are the most emblematic and they all happen in the month of June. They all celebrate the life of saints but their basis is a pagan celebration of the summer solstice and ancient fertility rituals.