While most of Europe experiences below zero temperatures in December, it is hard to resist feeling a little smug as we take long walks on glistening, often deserted beaches and enjoy hot drinks on esplanades bathed in sunshine. Some may say it doesn’t feel like Christmas but look beyond the normal tourist attractions and you have the opportunity to share in the local customs and festivities.
One of the most important expressions of popular culture at this time of the year revolves around the creation of nativity scenes. Every church in every town and hamlet will have one on display. This year, the Nossa Senhora da Conceição Church in Loulé is hosting an exhibition of 23 displays that are part of the 1st Nativity Scene Competition of the Municipality. Traditionally though, nativity scenes in the Algarve are not about the manger and the three kings but rather focus on revering the Christ Child – O Menino Jesus and reflect the importance of agriculture in the region. A small altar built of steps is covered with a cloth of the finest, white linen and lace. A hand-painted statue of the Christ Child dressed in a freshly washed and pressed robe is placed on the top step. The altar is adorned with sprigs of rosemary, bay leaf, olive and oranges. On either side of each step, sit little porcelain or clay dishes with sprouted grains, sown on the 8th of December. These seedlings, considered blessed by the Christ Child, are planted out on the day of Kings, January 6th, in the hope that a bountiful harvest will ensure.
Churches are also commonly the venues for the many Christmas concerts and carol services held throughout the region. There are several amateur choirs such as the Grupo Coral Adágio from Portimão and the Coral Ideias do Levante from Lagoa. Concerts have a very diverse repertoire, often representative of the many nationalities of the members of the choirs. The Orquestra Clássica do Sul, (Classic Orchestra of the South) also put on concerts in the weeks leading up to Christmas day.
Every year sees more and more Christmas markets and fairs, usually in support of a charity. These are wonderful venues to buy original gifts made by local craft artists.
It may not be easy to find information on what is happening all in one place but it is worth spending a little time scouring the local newspapers and magazines for details of events. Most groups have their own websites and municipalities have come a long way in promoting activities, publishing little leaflets with the events for the month. Their websites are worth checking out too. Type in “cm-“(for Câmara Municipal) and then the name of the town, e.g. www.cm-lagos.pt.
The Algarve Tourism board site is: www.visitalgarve.pt
So chase the Christmas cheer before you welcome in the year!