Traditional Portuguese Folklore
From the shape and painting of a fishing boat to the way of harvesting, Portugal is a land where everything the people do has some traditional meaning. The examples are so many and varied that the traveler cannot miss them. This is a land where folklore is not something collected and sometimes patronizingly appreciated by a nostalgic middle class. Folklore is totally alive in Portugal , and if you tried to live in a small Portuguese town without participating in the folklore your life would be empty indeed.
In the Alentejo one sees it in the lore of shepherding, with the traditional tools of the craft: the cork bucket, "tarro", for soup, the earthenware water jars with their ancient and traditional design, the hand‑carved horn for carrying the luncheon olives, the black scarves and flat black hats worn by ninety per cent of the women.
Along the coast there are the famous costumes of the fishermen as in Nazare, with the long, black, knit cap dating from the Phoenician fishermen and the plaid wool shirts and pantaloons that are the proud badge of one of the last remaining totally masculine professions. There is the design of the fishing boats of Aveiro and Nazaré, with the long, upswept and pointed prows and the occasional mystic eyeball painted on the side, to protect the fisherman from who knows what unseen powers. And lastly the traditional drawing in of the boats by oxen.
But while the serious side of Portuguese worship is indeed profound, the joyous aspects are equally emphasized, and form the basis for the delightful folklore the tourist sees as he travels through the land. Most of the enjoyments are associated with the various saints, lesser deities in a religion that finds an incarnation for all of the aspirations of the human soul. Each village, besides having its patron Virgin, has a favorite saint, and a day dedicated to celebrating him with garlands of flowers, special foods, fireworks, dancing and so on.
The most popular and spectacular Saints' Days take place in June. The place to be for them is Lisbon . The 13th of the month is for St. Anthony, the 24th dedicated to St. John and the 29th is for St. Peter. On these days the whole city is a large party, but especially the Alfama and the Bairro Alto, the oldest parts of Lisbon where live the poorest, most devout and most capable of simple joy.
These two areas of Lisbon will be awake all night during the Saints' Days, with ample fireworks to discourage anyone who might have thought of sleeping. Tables are set up in every patio; sausages, sardines and fried chicken are served with simple wine, and Fado singers are hired to charm the celebrants with their plaintiff strains of song.
Though the basic celebrations are the same for all the Saints' Days, there are a number of individual charming folk traditions, such as the already mentioned exchange of phallic symbols on Sâo Gonsalo Day in Amarante, the hanging of pig flesh (sausages or smoked ham) on fig tree branches during the day of São Antao in the Alentejo, the Parade of the Giants in Guimarães on St. Walter's Day and many others. Then there are the Romarias, which Portugal has in common with Spain . These are religious processions to some shrine or the site of a miracle, which combine devoutness, joyousness, and even profit as the procession is usually accompanied by a market of the local crafts.
The Romaria may last a day or several days, and may ' draw only the local populace or pilgrims from all over the peninsula. Depending on the size of the pre‑Romaria collection, the fireworks may be extremely elaborate, the musicians from the very accomplished, the statues of the Virgin of great richness and gaudiness.
A very common feature of the Romaria is the carrying of a candle to the site on an ox‑cart, beautifully decorated. When the candle arrives, the real festivities begin, with fireworks, music and dancing. The participants have accompanied the ox‑cart, and upon arrival, they circle the goal several times, afterwards kissing the feet of the favored statue. Sometimes they perform acts of penitence, such as making the circles on their knees. The cripples who come on these Romarias hoping to gain a miraculous cure may often submit sculptures of the afflicted limbs or organs.
The statues are charming rather than bloody and tortured as they often are in neighboring Spain . They may be decorated richly with jewels and expensive robes, and then there are the exotic ones such as the Virgin of the Milk, with milk engorged breasts, said to be especially propitious for nursing mothers. Once the religious part of the Romaria is concluded, there is a great outdoor picnic. If you pass one of these you are sure to be invited to partake in the roast chickens and wine that is passed around, and perhaps you'll learn some of the dances that will take place as the evening progresses. There is a whole world of folk‑art and craft in this tiny country. From north to south one encounters the most exquisite needlework, but the most famous is that of Guimarães. Hand embroidery from the coastal region and lace articles are also included among the folk arts. In Barcelos you'll find a kind of small, naive ceramics work that will not fail to capture your heart. Comical little depictions of religious scenes or household peasant scenes are depicted with great charm. From the same region comes the cabbage‑leaf pottery, with pots in vegetable design.
In another region of the north, Trás‑os‑Montes, the ceramic work is given a smoked black look by some trick in the firing. This gives it the look, if not the durability, of pewter. Alentejo pottery, especially that of Estremoz, is highly prized for its naive expression. Quite often marble chips are embedded in the ceramic. Woodwork is found in Minho and Alentejo, where lonely farmers have long days in which to carve the most intricate designs. The famous woodcarving is done in the bark of the cork tree, and there are examples of the most elaborate nature. One can hardly imagine the patience that goes into this folk‑craft.
Inside the house of an Alentejo peasant, there is hardly anything carvable that has not been in some way embellished by knife work, from the plates to the toothpicks. In the north, one is always seeing ox‑drawn carts along the road. If there is a chance, take a look at the yokes of the oxen. Here, too, you will see the intricate work of the Portuguese woodcarver. The best place to see all this folk art gathered together is the Museum of Folk‑Art in Belém, near Lisbon , but each region also has its museum of the regional art. There is one in Estremoz, an excellent one, there is one in Coimbra and one in Faro for the art of the Algarve region. Be sure to stop in wherever you see a museum of folk‑art, as this is really one of the main things to see in the country. The Ministry of Tourism in each town quite often has its own display of local crafts, as in Barcelos.
There are myriad fishermen's customs, special saints, special behavior and the very special custom of the fishermen's wives remaining faithful to them even if they have been lost at sea for several years. Then there are the folk dances of the Portuguese. In the Igarve there is the passionate and lively Corridinho, for which he women dress in their traditional black costumes. The most famous folk dance of Portugal , the Fandango, as its place in Ribatejo, where the man dances alone. The 'escovinho" is also danced in this region. In the north, where peasant traditions are strong, there re many folk dances, among them the "Chulas" and "danças os Pauliteiros" of the remote Trás‑os‑Montes region, the energetically performed "Viras" and "Gotas" of the Minho, and he dances in which the women show off their traditional jewelery, the "Malhao" and "Perim".