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Carnival Traditions in Portugal

Firstly, Carnival is an ancient tradition worldwide that announces the arrival of spring. The Carnival traditions in Portugal are very rich and varied.

Interestingly, it’s roots are in Babylon and Rome. However through the ages, Christianity absorbed it and later it evolved into what we are familiar with today. You may know it as “Mardi Gras”, “Pancake Tuesday”, “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”.

In Portugal, it used to be known as “Entrudo”. Even today, it’s frequently referred by this name. Further, many defend that Entrudo is the genuine Portuguese Carnaval and should be protected heritage.

It occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. Precisely on a Tuesday, 47 days before Easter Sunday. And it typically falls in February or early March.

Origin of the name

Some say “carne levare” is the origin of the word “Carnaval” . It means “remove meat”. Others say “carne vale” is the origin, meaning “farewell, meat” – an expression with roots in folklore.

Entrudo” comes from the Latin word “introitus” which means “entrance”. In either case, both “Carnaval” and “Entrudo” allude to the lean days ahead of Lent.

Thus, Carnival Tuesday and the Sunday before Lent are “fat” days. In contrast to the lean days typical of Lent, these “fat days” are for eating various meat delicacies. We call these days “Domingo Gordo” (Fat Sunday) and “Terça-feira Gorda”/”Terça-feira de Carnaval”. As a result we have an expression revolving around these excesses:

No entrudo, come-se tudo” (during entrudo, everything is eaten).

O que é o jantar no Domingo Gordo ou Terça-feira de Carnaval | What’s for dinner on Fat Sunday or Tuesday

Because Carnival is a time of revelry and excess, it’s no different at the dinner table.
More Carnival traditions in Portugal include eating heavy meat dishes for dinner. In other words, it’s tradition on “Domingo Gordo” and Terça-feira Gorda to eat dishes like “Cozido à Portuguesa” (Portuguese stew), “Feijoada” (bean stew) and “Papas de Sarrabulho” (a type of meat “porridge”).

Cozido à Portuguesa

With the slaughter of the pig at Christmas time, the fattest meats are carefully stored and salted. They are to be later savoured on Fat Sunday only. This includes parts such as the ears, snout, feet and tails. Cheeses, sausages and hams are other foods traditionally appropriate on these fat days. All accompanied with wine of course!

Tradições Principais de Carnaval em Portugal | Main Carnival traditions in Portugal

Even though it’s not an official holiday, it doesn’t stop people from celebrating it. Moreover, it’s up to the municipalities and private companies to implement Carnival. There are several traditions observed in Portugal. Some of the most obvious and recognizable ones are people dressed up in costumes and masks.

Moreover these costumes allude to a professional category, a movie character, cartoon or even a celebrity. Most of the time the costumes are satirical in nature, specially in organized parades.

Earliest beginnings

According to a document from 1252, the first Carnival in Portugal was held in that year. This document states the religious celebrations held at the time. But, as I mentioned earlier, it was known as “Entrudo” back then.

Entrudo traditions

The Carnival traditions in Portugal have always been marked by popular spontaneity. A lesser known date connected to Carnival is “Lean Sunday”(Domingo Magro). It’s exactly one week before “Fat Sunday” (Domingo Gordo). This used to mark the beginning of the celebrations with “spontaneous preparation” rituals.

Many of these traditions only live on in the memories of our older generations now. In recent years there has been a tremendous effort to bring back some of this heritage before it’s completely lost.

Carnival pranks

Overall I was able to piece together some information about “Lean Sunday” and what the “preparation rituals” involved. These preparations consisted mainly of harmless pranks. Even if they sometimes hurt a little, we have an expression in Portuguese which is:

É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal” – “It’s Carnival, nobody takes it the wrong way”

The participants would go out in the streets throwing all sorts at each other. These included buckets of water, eggs, orages and little cloth bags filled with rubble or sawdust.

Bombinhas de mau cheiro

Stink bombs

I remember as a child we played mostly with water balloons. And then some kids would have stink bombs. “bombinhas de mau cheiro” were little fragile vials with a foul smelling liquid inside. They could clear a room in an instant, they were that bad. As you can imagine, classrooms were often the victims of this prank. It became so common they were banned from schools altogether.

Pisão, farinhada and panelada

In some parts, a common prank was to tie a stone to a cord; then tie the cord to the door frame of a random house. Then, from afar, release the stone to “knock” on the door. This made the people inside have to get up no matter what the time only to find no one standing at the door. This prank was known as “Pisão“.

Another prank, called “Farinhada” (“flour-ed”). Consisting of boys throwing a heap of flour into unsuspecting girls faces on Carnival Monday.

This next prank was called “panelada” (“pan-ed”). This one was usually destined for the older generations. It consisted of filling a pan with wooden rubble or nuts and throwing them into the homes of the unsuspecting elderly. This would obviously make a tremendous noise and scare people.

Carnival parades

Carnival float in Portugal

The Carnival parades are one of the highlights in Portugal. These parades are often accused of being a bad imitation of the Brazilian Carnival. However, there are plenty places that still hold them in spite of this. Even if the weather in Portugal at this time of the year isn’t exactly suitable. Torres Vedras, Loulé, Estarreja and Funchal in the Açores, to name a few, are some of the most famous ones.

It’s interesting to note that the Brazilian Carnival was introduced by the Portuguese. It also has a heavy Iberian influence in many parts of Brazil.

Parade themes

To begin with, there is usually an overarching theme for each parade every year. Within the main theme, each participating group will have an allegorical float and people dressed up in costumes and masks to match. The floats and costumes are usually satirical in nature. They revolve around social criticism. Ranging from football to television to politics, always using sense of humour to satirize the state the country is in.

Matrafonas – Carnival Tradition in Portugal

Secondly, most parades often include samba dancing. The music played at these are usually the “marchinhas de Carnaval” (little carnival marches) from Brazil.

Thirdly, a very common presence at these parades are the “matrafonas”. Men dressed in women’s clothing, wigs and make-up n the most outrageous and whimsical ways possible!

Cabeçudos

The Torres Vedras parades are known for their gigantic puppets called “Cabeçudos” (giant heads). The puppets can be up to 5 metres tall and are meant to be worn by one person. The weight of the heads can be anywhere between 20Kg and 35Kg!

Cabeçudos – Genuine Carnival Traditions in Portugal


Children and Carnival

Children also celebrate Carnival with their school mates, usually by having a classroom theme and working on their costumes together. There usually are children parades organized by the schools and leisure associations on the Friday before the carnival weekend.

Masquerade Balls

Carnival Masquerade Ball in Portugal

carnival Another highlight of the holiday are masquerade balls. The municipalities or other organizations organize them on Sunday and Tuesday nights. Lots of dancing, drinking, eating and a prize for best costume usually go with this tradition.

Os Caretos do Entrudo Chocalheiro

Caretos de Podence – Genuine Carnival Traditions in Portugal


The Careto tradition is a very old one believed to have Celtic origins, however it’s true origins remain a mystery. This tradition is considered to be one of the most genuine Portuguese Carnival traditions. It’s passed passed down from generation to generation. It’s still practised in the northern regions of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro. But the main highlight goes to the caretos from Podence, Macedo de Cavaleiros.

Caretos are young men dressed up in artisanal costumes decorated with colourful woollen fringes. The men cover their faces with red handcrafted masks. These masks are crafted out of tin plate (latão), leather (couro) or wood (madeira) with pointed noses and /or horns. They also wear cowbells on their belts.

These characters represent mysterious diabolical and mischievous creatures that announce the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

On Fat Sunday and Shrove Tuesday are when they are most active. Running up and down the streets, jumping, dancing in groups and shouting excitedly and scaring people.

Chocalhar

Another essential characteristic of their behaviour is to run up to young women and “dance” with them. They ring their cowbells on the women by shaking their hips. This characteristic movement is said to have roots in pagan fertility dances. This is called “chocalhar”. The caretos bring joy and laughter wherever they go.

É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal” – “It’s Carnival, nobody takes it the wrong way”

The preparation takes weeks and brings the community together. It takes many people working together to make it all happen.

The tradition almost went extinct thanks to the colonial war and emigration. But thankfully through the effort of the people it came back and in force too. It’s now one of the main tourist attractions of the region and of the country!

In conclusion, ff you can, I would definitively not miss the chance to go see them in person one day.

Below is a video with a little taste of them in action! (turn the sound low they are quite noisy!!)

Caretos de Podence – Carnival Traditions in Portugal

Quarta-feira de Cinzas | Ash Wednesday

O Enterro do Entrudo | The Burrial of the Entrudo

This tradition is very Portuguese and it’s the closing celebration to the excesses of the last few days. Always organized by the people and generally consists of a pretend funeral parade. The funeral is held on Ash Wednesday with a life size dummy or doll as the deceased . Some towns have on Tuesday evening instead. Other “characters” present at the funeral include the “inconsolable widows” – a “sister” and a “wife” usually, making witty derogatory and humorous remarks about the deceased to the “priest” and “sacristan” who equally respond sarcastically back.

There is even a will in testament that the doll leaves behind with “tips” on how society can change or improve before the next year. The will is read in public for all to hear and then the dummy is lit on fire and then cast out to the sea or river to be “drowned”. The significance of this is to purge the soul of bad energy.

Every year this tradition is reviving itself more and more in an attempt to preserve national heritage and fight globalization.

To read about other traditions in Portugal around this time please click here.

Which one of these are your favourite Carnival traditions in Portugal?

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