We needn’t have worried that being in Portugal wouldn’t feel as ‘Christmassy’ as being in cold England. The Portugese seem to go in for Christmas in an even bigger way than the Brits, probably helped by the two bank holidays at the start of December on the 1st and 8th!
Being a country populated by 98% Roman Catholics, the religious aspect is obviously more widely important than in the UK, illustrated by the huge range of nativity scenes available in shops and as part of town decorations. This said, the consumer-Christmas that we all know and love/hate (delete as applicable) is alive and well in Portugal as well.
Yesterday we set off to buy our tree – we were originally going to go to the Portugese equivalent of the UK Homebase or B&Q (Leroy Merlin,) but got caught in our first traffic jam in 4 weeks(!) on the outskirts of Faro. We happened to drive past the huge Forum shopping centre and the beautiful Christmas lights drew us in.
Shopping Centres are treated as a real day-out destination in Portugal. They are similar to centres in the UK, but probably a bit closer to the ones you would find in America. Generally though, a shopping centre is the same the world over – a load of shops on a few levels, with a big food-court at the top. In Portugal you usually find a large hypermarket at the bottom and a multiscreen cinema somewhere as well.
The difference though, is the atmosphere. I associate shopping centres in the UK with chavvy kids and queues at Primark. Here, the atmosphere is relaxed, and there always seems to be a large outside area with pavement cafes and people drinking Uma Bica (an espresso) or Um Imperial (a small beer.) The opening hours are long – where we visited yesterday was open until midnight, and still buzzing with people when we left at 10.30pm.
There are a lot of families, some clearly on a day out with 3 or maybe even 4 generations of the family out together. Last, but not least, the food court, which, although it has plenty of junk food outlets (including the first McDonalds we have encountered in Portugal so far,) there also seem to be some local and healthy options on offer – we had a bit of a nose at peoples plates and saw a lot of things we would like to try, rather than “shit-in-a-tray” that we would rather avoid!
As we sat under the lights of the very impressive tree, drinking some delicious coffee, which we still can’t believe is only about 60 cents per cup, we really started to understand the point of this “shopping centre as a day out” thing. Do a bit of shopping, have a decent lunch, have a beer, watch a movie, have a coffee, bit more shopping, another beer or two, perhaps a snack, then grab everything needed from the supermarket and head home. Obviously, as a fairly typical man, the fact that “have a beer” can be included in the list makes a day of shopping seem a lot more attractive, though I couldn’t see this working particularly well in binge-drinking Britain!
As Christmas gets nearer, I’m sure the pace at these places will get a lot more frantic and will probably be as hellish in the few days before the big day as they are everywhere else in the world, but as far as last night was concerned, we actually had a really good time at a shopping centre, which isn’t something I thought I would ever say.
Otherwise, it all seems very similar to Christmas back in England, and with the current cold nights, it is suitably chilly to feel right. Even the Christmas songs playing in the supermarket are the same selection which my wife adores but that start to drive me to distraction by around 15th December! We are enjoying trying different festive foods, and all the Portugese versions of the things we have at home as well. My father-in-law is arriving in a few days with a few essentials we haven’t been able to get (i.e. bread sauce mix,) the tree is going up this week, and then we can start to look forward to our first Portugese Christmas. I can’t wait.
Seasons greetings to all!