♫ Festas & Rediscovering Religion ✞

Greetings! I want to take this time to kill two birds with one stone- covering the tradition of festas along with my musings on the Portuguese religious culture.

So, to start, what exactly are the festas? To countless people, festa is synonymous with sopas (particularly caldo verde), and beyond that- rancho, rifas (read more), family, eating and good music. But the tradition has been more than 700 years in the making and holds a deeper significance. They usually commence on a weekend with a church service and town procissão or procession honoring the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost? To better explain it, I will use the miraculous and enchanting story of St. Isabel, former queen of Portugal. (By the way, I was confirmed a Catholic when I was younger, and I chose Isabel after I heard this story! Plus she was Portuguese 😉 )


St. Isabel’s Blessings and the Origin of the Festas

The festas all began hundreds of years ago in 1296 when Queen Isabel of Agagao, wife of King Dinis of Portugal, saw her subjects suffering from the effects of a devastating drought followed by a long famine. Thousands of people died during those years. Wells ran dry, and food began to get scarce. Portugal’s Queen Isabel did all she could for her people during that time. There is a tradition that shows her, always with red roses in one hand and a small loaf of bread in the other. This stems from her habit of taking bread from the palace and secretly passing it to the poor and hungry. One day the king found out about it and confronted her. When she opened her apron to reveal the stolen bread, a miracle had occurred. For instead of bread, a bunch of red roses fell to the floor. Her generosity and love for her people had been honored by God.

Masses were said continuously during a nine-day novena until the day of Pentecost when the people witnessed three ships sail up the harbor and docked in Lisbon. These ships were filled with grain. Their hunger was finally at an end. It also began to rain, after several years of drought. This was considered to be a major miracle. In thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit for this miraculous deliverance, the day of the Pentecost was declared to be a national holiday. This holiday persisted in Portugal for several centuries before being exported to the Azores Islands, and when Portuguese people migrated to California and the East Coast, they brought the Holy Ghost Celebration with them, introducing it to their American neighbors.

Queen Isabel was canonized by Pope Urban the Eighth in 1625. Her devotion to her people was symbolized by the promise she made to the Holy Spirit that if her people were delivered from the famine and drought, she would lay her jeweled crown on the altar as a gift to the church. Replicas of her crown adorned with the dove, the Holy Spirit’s symbol, were made. The tradition of the festa has survived nearly 700 years of tumultuous worldly change and may very well survive another 700 years, for its inception is deep-rooted in religion, but more importantly, in faith.


Festas usually are therefore tied to a prominent figure in the faith. For instance, when my hometown (Carregal do Sal) has their festa, they have a procession honoring the Virgin Mother Mary. Several firetrucks drive between two long straight lines of people with speakers on the tops of their roofs that project the voice of the priest at the head of the line praying the rosary. As the people walk, several women pull out their rosaries and pray along with the father. The celebrated Saint or figure usually is carried throughout the street by several church servers, and when spectators see the Blessed figure pass they shower it with rose petals.

Here is the Virgin Mother entering the church in my town at the end of the procession. She is being showered in rose petals:

Procissao for blog

Sometimes, if enough students are in town, they participate in the festivities wearing their traje academico (see previous post) or academic uniform complete with the black cape. They lay their capes down on the ground in front of the church before the Saint or Virgin Mother returns home.

During the procession, everyone carries a candle that burns for the length of the walk. At the end, people place their candles in an outside alter with a prayer.

Procissao for blog2

Before I continue covering the more cultural and non-religious aspects of the festas, I want to make a point about Portuguese religious culture. It’s funny because I am no longer Catholic in the United States (I am now Christian), but when I come in the summers I instantly transition back to the way I grew up. I can still even recite all the prayers and songs, except I am the only one who does so in English at the small church in my town.

Catholicism is all about that tradition… traditions that date back centuries are the life force and unifying thread to the religion. What I notice about Portuguese Catholicism or piety in general is that many religious customs are thoroughly ingrained in the society as cultural norms. And they are given substantial respect. I was impressed because, as with every town, Carregal do Sal has its “troubled youth” (as older people refer to them when complaining about society today), but I saw many of those same “trouble makers” quietly revering the passing Virgin Mother, joining the walk or just overall showing respect to the “processioners,” if you will, that passed. I expected many to scoff at the spectacle as they would probably do back home where the youth is more vocal and where, even though the U.S. is perceived as a “Christian nation,” the diversity of cultures and religions makes it hard for one set of religious customs to become the norm (that is if you exclude something like Christmas, but even that has really become two holidays rolled into one).

Catholicism is different here. It’s relaxed (low church attendance and participation for the most part during the year) yet it’s not since many of its practices have found their mark as national norms. Festas are a great example! They started out with a religious significance, but now they have just become a fun time for families and friends. Even the procession is more of a community thing than a faith walk or prayer time, for instance. Interesting.

Nevertheless, moving on! What can be expected at a festa? Lots of activities! In the past, Carregal do Sal festas had this event based around a large wooden beam and a bag of codfish (bacalhau) at the top. The beam would be greased and men would try to climb it to reach the prize at the top. Today, that kind of stuff still occurs but it’s mixed in with a more carnival type environment. In bigger cities, festas resemble big carnivals with lots of rides and cotton candy, popcorn, games, burgers and french fries, concerts, street vendors, churros, etc. Carregal do Sal and other small aldeãs (small towns) have smaller scale carnivals.

I attended one near Lisbon and here is a picture of things you would find…

Top left to right: entrance with the typical lit up festa archways, a place to get waffles with ice cream (very popular here), and a churraria or churro stand. Churros are also called farturas here. Middle left to right: ice cream booth, sweets booth, a place to buy chichas quentes or cachorros (hot dogs), the hot dogs are really strange here- they come with crushed chips on top!, some women selling goods and toys. Bottom left to right: It’s popular here to have jantar or dinner at the festas for the length of the week. The first picture is one of the barracas or dinner barracks. You can get some hot soup from the top or some bread with cheese and sausage, and later take some home for the family. The next picture is what the dinner barracks look like next to one another. During the night, people will go from one to another depending on the prices of drinks or to find a booth still serving hot soup at 3 AM. The last two pictures are my favorite. Often at the festas people will pay for small samples of drinks. These pictures show one of those tastings, of ginjinhaGinjinha is a cherry liquor, and a shot of it is served in a little chocolate cup! So cute.

Lisbon festa

The festas in Lisbon were very exciting. I went out with the entire UMass Summer in Lisbon crew and we had a blast! The festas were held in Lisbon in honor of St. Anthony, the Saint of relationships, love, matchmaking and marriages. His feast day, the 12th of June, is a special day. Many weddings are held on this day, and single girls carry out all sorts of rituals to implore Anthony to help them find a worthy husband. The girl might fill her mouth with water until she hears a man’s name mentioned, or write her suitors’ names on pieces of paper, roll them up and place them in a bowl of water under her bed. In the morning, the piece of paper that has unfurled the most indicates the lucky man. If girls are really sick of being single, they stand a small statue of Anthony upside down and bury its head, returning it to its proper position only when the hard-working saint has placed their case at the top of his long list of lonely hearts.

For more on this day, read here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/portugal/lisbon/travel-tips-and-articles/77201

The UMass students and I had a lot of fun, here is a picture from that day:

Marchas Populares, festas, Alfama with the group! (4)

To the right, you have a sardine vendor! It’s a tradition here to have the tasty grilled snacks for the Saint’s feast day. And we also watched the Marchas Populares this year. This time, as opposed to last year, I had us sit in the Restauradores area where the parade ends and we got to interact with the groups and were so much closer to them! Here is a dancer from the Macau (Portuguese colony in China) group:

Marchas Populares, festas, Alfama with the group! (30)

In terms of what is left of the old traditions, traveling rancho groups still perform at the festas every year. Rancho Folclórico groups basically dance traditional dances to folkloric tunes and wear the customary dress from different regions of the country.

Rancho completo

They spin and waltz around one another in pairs, and usually with their arms in the air. Here are some awesome pictures of what they look like up close: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60VYhcotMew and a clip of them dancing to give you an idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKjD–wDndc

The costumes are meant to represent all the different types of people in the town, and each group is dressed according to what those different people would wear in that region of Portugal. Literally all walks of life are represented in the group, from the sassy wives of fishmongers to a viúva or the widow (dressed in black, bottom center). The musicians and singers typically sit in the back, and guitars, accordions and drums are the common instruments for the show.

I used to do rancho and I absolutely loved it! The shoes that the girls wear are like slippers that are hand embroidered on the front. The shoes are worn with slippery socks and have no backs, so that was always problematic when you are trying to move around!

Another fun tradition is the rifas! or bazaar. I have loved the rifas for as long as I can remember! What you do is go up to the booth or quermesse

Rancho & rifas (39)

pay for a set of rolled up pieces of paper…

Rancho & rifas (38)

and then you unroll all the papers you were handed to see if one of them has a number in it. If you find one with a number in it, the man looks it up in his book and you take home a prize! When I was little, I once won a beautiful china doll that I still have at home!

All in all, the festa is one of the main elements of Portuguese culture that I love the most. This year it was interesting to learn the deeper religious significance behind it. I grew up knowing the story of Isabel but I had no idea she was one of the main participants in executing the festival! No wonder I chose such a dynamic lady for my Catholic confirmation name 😉

Before I go, I want to share a funny story that occurred at home. The day of the first festas-related church service, if my relatives and parents are all around, we gather and have a family reunion lunch to celebrate the growth of the Dias family clan! This year, my aunt celebrated 50 years of marriage and so my mom bought some 50€ napkins for us to use.

Family Reunion Lunch (1)

My cousin dropped some champagne on her foot and used the napkin to wipe it up. My other cousin shouts from across the room: “Cousin! Washing your feet with champagne and wiping them dry with notes of 50€? How shameful! We are in a crisis!” LOL. It was awesome.

Well, time for sleep…

As always,

Beijos e abraços, meus amigos. kissy ❤


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