Christmas is coming and the Azores are full of activities to cheer you up this season. Are you ready to spend Christmas in the Azores? Christmas decorations and lights, nativity scenes, culture, typical foods, the “Menino Mija” and much more! Here there is always something going on and great reasons to spend this festive season in the islands. Stay with us and get to know some of the Azores Christmas traditions.
Inauguration of the Christmas lights and decoration
It’s not Christmas without lights and decoration. The municipalities and parishes of the Azores archipelago decorate the streets and most common places with lights and nativity scenes so that people can enjoy this time of year in the best way. In addition to the decoration, there are numerous street entertainment events during the Christmas season.
Ribeira Grande Christmas Lights
Shop Windows Day
The Day of the Windows is celebrated every year on 8 December, the day on which the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in the country. The celebration is all involved with traditional commerce and has been going on for dozens of years. Local businesses decorate their shop windows with the best decorations and products, with images alluding to this Christmas season, thus enticing customers to buy their Christmas gifts in these shops. Also, as a way of encouraging traditional shops, the municipal councils promote a window display competition, in which the best-decorated shop window is awarded a prize.
Moreover, the streets already lit up and decorated with Christmas elements are filled with a huge crowd, which really conveys a true Christmas feeling.
This year, and taking into account the pandemic that the world is going through, the celebration will be done differently. Instead of taking place in a single day, the celebration will be spread over 4 days (from 8 to 11), thus avoiding large crowds.
Cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica), the Azores Christmas tree
The Cryptomeria (Japanese Japanese Red Cedar) is the most important forest species in the Azores, both for its economic importance (it occupies about 60% of the forested area) and for its structural importance in what is the landscape of the Azores.
In this sense, and due to its high abundance, this was the species chosen to be the Azoreans’ Christmas tree.
Moss as an ornament in Christmas cribs
Moss (peat moss, genus sphagnum) is commonly used in the nativity scene made by the people of the Azores, although its harvest is prohibited. These plants, also known as moss or seaweed, have biological characteristics of accumulation of water and air. Basically, this species works like a small sponge, very light when dry, but which can support up to 20 times its weight when in water. Worldwide, there are about 150 species of moss and in the Azores 16 of them are present.
Besides this, this species plays a fundamental role in controlling soil erosion and regulating the flow of springs and streams.
A very typical tradition of the Azores is visiting the cribs scattered around the islands. Some of the most famous and visited are the ones in Furnas, Casa do Arcano, Manaias and Prior Evaristo Gouveia.
The Casa do Arcano was considered the first regional treasure of the Azores archipelago and is a true icon of the Azorean culture. This house is the testimony of the work of Mother Margarida do Apocalypse, the mother who dedicated 20 years of her life to execute this masterpiece that is the Arcano. The spaces of the house have remained unchanged, as is the case of the kitchen, the ceilings, the masonry in an attempt to demonstrate and get to know a life lived in a city of yesteryear. The various paintings, arranged over the three floors of the exhibition piece, are composed of small figures, all of them hand-moulded and made of the most varied materials, such as rice flour, animal gelatine, gum arabic and ground glass. According to what is said, the author made this work with the purpose of praising God, entertaining and teaching catechism. This is truly a giant nativity scene that can and should be admired by everyone.
Prior Evaristo Gouveia Crib
This bustling nativity scene is housed in the Museu Municipal da Ribeira Grande and can be visited during the Christmas season, being one of the biggest Christmas attractions on the island of São Miguel.
Since 2008 this nativity scene has been classified as a municipal asset and is said to have been created with the aim of helping the church and occupying the free time of the young people who used to meet at the Youth Association.
The nativity scene has around 400 pieces made from a wide variety of materials, especially recyclable and natural ones.
The Furnas Valley hosts, year after year, one of the largest open-air nativity scenes in the Azores region. In harmony with nature, the nativity scene is arranged along the area of the Caldeiras das Furnas, an arrangement that includes around 5000 figures. This crib is usually exposed to visitors from the beginning of December until the day of saint’s day.
Casa dos Manaias Crib
The crib of the Casa dos Manaias is a social inclusion project that tries to represent faith, the sacred family, and also the identity and traditions of the Azorean people. Special emphasis is given to the materials used as the basis for the construction of this crib, which is clay, natural materials, recyclable and also symbolic since some former users execute some of the pieces in order to be placed in the crib.
With about 400 pieces built by users, since 2015, this crib is one of the many attractions of this Christmas cycle in the Azores.
Lapinha cribs are authentic miniature cribs and date back to the 16th century. They appeared for the first time on the island of São Miguel due to the settlement of the Franciscan Order. Since then, they have been part of the cultural identity of the people of São Miguel.
They were firstborn by the hands of the nuns of these religious convents of the Franciscan Order and these decorated the nativity scenes literally with the elements they “had at hand”. Small shells, artificial flowers, feathers, fish scales, dry moss, paper, cotton and small clay figures to represent the Holy Family.
The central figure and theme of the nativity scenes have always been the Holy Family and the birth of the Baby Jesus. Other additional themes of the cribs are the representation of daily life, such as the slaughter of the pig, processions and pilgrimages. The grotto houses the Holy Family and all the other elements are organised around it.
Find out more about Lapinha’s Nativity scenes in this article: https://pt.azoresguide.net/os-tradicionais-presepios-de-lapinha/
Between the 24th of December and the 6th of January (Three Kings’ Day), several groups of men and women go from house to house visiting their relatives and friends, this visit is essentially marked by the tasting of traditional sweets and liqueurs of the season and of the region. The people who wait for the visitors expose to their table all the best they have to offer. These guests, unexpected or not, before entering the house they are going to visit, ask “does the boy pee?
Learn more about the tradition of the “Menino Mija” in this article: https://pt.azoresguide.net/o-menino-mija/
Azores Christmas Cake
The Azores Christmas Cake, also known as “fruit cake”, is the king sweet of the Azorean Christmas tables.
The recipe for this Christmas cake varies a little according to the customs of each of the nine islands, but the taste is always a real delight. The most interesting thing is that this cake has to be prepared two weeks in advance and stored in a wrapping made of baking paper, in a warm place. Moreover, this cake lasts a long time, so you can store it in the freezer and consume it later.
Learn more about the Azores Christmas Cake in this article: https://pt.azoresguide.net/o-bolo-de-natal-dos-acores/
Fireworks and New Year’s Eve Ball at Coliseu Micaelense
The municipalities of the Azores celebrate the New Year in the best way with great firework displays. The downtown of the cities is illuminated with colours that mark the entrance, preferably with the right foot, into a new year.
The Coliseu Micaelense organises great New Year’s Eve dances. The participants first go downtown Ponta Delgada to see the fireworks bursts and then they go to the coliseum where they celebrate the entrance of the new year in the middle of the night.
Other Christmas traditions of the Azores
These traditions are common and similar from island to island, changing only a few details.
In the Azores in general, nine days before the 25th of December, the spiritual preparation for Christmas begins, through the novenas of baby Jesus. The novenas are prayers made to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Also, between Saint Barbara’s day (4 December) and the day of the Immaculate Conception (8 December), or Saint Lucia’s day (13 December), vetch, wheat, corn, lupine or alpista are placed in bowls and plates. In combination with oranges and tangerines, these elements served and still serve to decorate the nativity scene or even the alter of baby Jesus. On Christmas Eve, there is a saying that these planted pots should be present at the Christmas Eve table so that there will never be a lack of bread at home.
The seeds of these plants must soak for at least 24 hours before being planted. Once they are dry, they are placed in a pot with soil (without being completely buried).
They are watered once a day until they begin to grow.
On the island of Santa Maria wheat is planted to be placed around the baby Jesus, on the island of Graciosa steps with the image of the baby Jesus on top is placed on a table lined with a white cloth.
These same steps are decorated with natural flowers, vetch or even citrus fruits. In São Jorge Island, Christmas Eve was important for girls because, unlike the other days of the year, they were free to go out at night, only until mass time. There is a saying “Trindades batidas, meninas recolhidas” (at Christmas Eve, girls gathered together).
After mass, they would eat the typical Caldo de Couves (cabbage broth), fish and bread with cheese.
On the island of Flores, roast chicken stuffed with debulho was eaten and dishes of yam with sausage were also served, a very typical dish of this island.