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History of the Christmas Tree in Portugal

Updated: 22 hours ago

Nowadays every home has this beautiful tradition of decorating a pine tree with coloured balls, shiny banners and flashing lights. But do you know who introduced this practice to our country? This custom began in the 19th century and we're going to tell you more about it as Christmas approaches, so you're sure to look at your Christmas tree with new eyes.

Christmas tree at the Pena Palace
Christmas tree at the Pena Palace (decorated in the tradition of King Ferdinand II)

King Ferdinand II, for example, brought a custom from his duchy and was responsible for introducing the Christmas tree tradition to Portugal. On his initiative, Christmas was celebrated in Lisbon's Palácio das Necessidades around a pine tree brought from Sintra's Parque da Pena, which the monarch decorated with candles, fruit and various figures. For this reason, every year Parques de Sintra places a small Christmas tree in the palace in the image of the one that would have been made at the time.

Ferdinand II used to dress up as St Nicholas to distribute the toys that the little princes found around the Christmas tree to the couple's seven surviving children. The first Christmas cards made in Portugal were also made by the monarch, who designed them to give to friends and family.

Ferdinand II, husband of Queen Maria II, introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree to Portugal in the 19th century and also designed the country's first ever greetings cards.

Until the middle of the 19th century, the Christmas tradition in Portugal was centered around the Nativity scene and the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. In reality, at this time of year, the so-called winter solstice takes place in Europe between December 21st and 23rd. Because of the Earth's natural tilt, in the northern hemisphere it is the shortest day of the year and, consequently, the longest night. December 25th was chosen by the Christian church as a way of breaking the pagan tradition and thus commemorating the birth of Jesus on this day.

In 1836, Queen Maria II married Ferdinand II, the Artist-King as he was nicknamed by the people. As well as dedicating himself to painting and music, Ferdinand was a benefactor of the restoration of various monuments, some in poor condition, such as the Monastery of Batalha, the Convent of Mafra, the Convent of the Order of Christ in Tomar, the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon and he sponsored the studies of several Portuguese in other countries, as well as speaking and writing Portuguese very well, something difficult for most Germans.

Engraving of King Ferdinand II
Engraving of King Ferdinand II dressed as St Nicholas.

Eleven children were born of his marriage to Maria II, two of whom were later kings, Pedro V and Luís I. Four died as newborns and three (including King Pedro V) died young from typhoid fever. Queen Maria II also died young, in the Palácio das Necessidades, on 15 November 1853, as a result of childbirth.

King Ferdinand had spent his childhood celebrating Christmas according to the old Germanic tradition of decorating a pine tree with candles, balls and fruit. So when his children with Maria II began to be born, and Fernando being a great father, he decided to liven up the palace with a Christmas of Germanic traditions.

According to records and charcoal drawings by the king himself, Ferdinand II would dress up as St Nicholas on Christmas Eve and hand out presents to his children in a genuine family celebration.

Do you enjoy this tradition? To find out more visit our Sintra section on our blog, or to take a tour and hear these same stories told by a local guide simply make a reservation on our website.

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