The Portugal Years – Year 1: Our First Christmas

Roasted Chestnuts
Roasted Chestnuts

In November, the weather was rainy and cold. Black umbrellas, black clothes and long nights were the new normal. We moved from fall into winter. Few Portuguese homes had insulation, and none that I knew of had central heating.

I started baking more often to keep the house warm. There was a portable gas heater, but I was concerned about it using up all the oxygen. We layered our clothes according to the temperature. Our tea kettle whistled often and we made tea. Being newlyweds, we didn’t need a good excuse for extra cuddling for warmth. And that was when we learned not to combine making tea with, um, cuddling.

One liter of milk
One liter of milk

By mid-December long lines of people were waiting patiently for their bacalhau (dried codfish).  Boiled dried codfish is a Portuguese Christmas tradition.  That year it was scarce.

The cows went dry in December as was their custom. Until then, we had been buying fresh milk in disposable plastic bags. Our only milk resource after that was boxes of milk with a shelf life. That was a shock to my culinary expectations.

chestnuts roasting
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

There were comforts for the season. One was roasted chestnuts. The smell of them roasting was a come hither fragrance. I’d never had them before, I but took to them like an ant does to sugar. Along the streets the vendors had their little brazier of chestnuts. They were an inexpensive treat that came wrapped in a paper cone, satisfied your hunger and warmed your hands.

About a week before Christmas, Harry borrowed a car and we went looking for a Christmas tree. We found a long-needled pine tree that we thought would look nice in our apartment. The ceiling was high, so we picked a tall tree. Too tall as it turned out. We cut it down, but it still brushed the ceiling. The next job was to decorate. All we had was a handful of ornaments that my former students had given me. What we did have were hidden in the pine needles. But, as long as Harry had his favorite cookies, he was good.

I was looking forward to the holiday break from language school. I had plans to read  books, play with my Samantha cat and just kick back. Didn’t happen. Right before Christmas day, Harry announced that he was coming home with a family of Americans who had just arrived. They would be working with a missions organization in Portugal and needed somewhere to stay until they found a place to live.

They were some of the most delightful folks I have ever met, but I was selfish. I really didn’t want to share our first Christmas together with anyone. Eventually, I got over it. Mostly. It wasn’t long until we become friends with them. But Harry and I did talk about how important it is to make sure that we communicate with each other before making major decisions. (We still haven’t agreed the definition of “major decision”.)

One other memorable thing happened that winter. In December, color television came to Portugal. And color TV created a revolution. When the favorite Brazilian dramas turned up in living color, the women’s clothing industry began to sell lighter, brighter clothing. And there I sat with all of my new dark wardrobe. 😀

Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera
Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera

What is your most memorable holiday that you’ve experienced? Why? (It can be any holiday, not just Christmas.)


11 thoughts on “The Portugal Years – Year 1: Our First Christmas

  1. There rolled around one Christmas early in our early Tennessee adventure where we had no money. None. Every dollar that came in had an outgoing destination before we even got our hands on it. Charlotte baked our Christmas gifts for friends and family.

    We had always had a real tree for Christmas. Previously, being close to the North Carolina Mountains, obtaining fresh real trees were never a problem. From Thanksgiving on, corner tree lots abounded. But here in Tennessee, just south of Nashville, the corner lots never appeared. There were none. The only live trees were sold at grocery stores and garden shops, and were priced twice as high as we were used to. With Christmas a week away, we still had no tree. There was nothing we could afford. We thought about cutting our own, but the predominate local pines here are Cedars. In Charlotte’s native Bavaria, Cedars were cemetery trees. There would not be a cedar Christmas tree in our house, she declared.

    The next night returning from grocery shopping, a wreck had detoured us onto a different route than our usual way home. Spotting a garden shop I had not seen before, I pulled the car in, and told Charlotte it wouldn’t hurt to look. It didn’t take long before I realized I was wrong. It did hurt to look. These were the most expensive trees we had seen yet. We had turned to go back to the car when the attendant called to me. He said there were some trees that were destined to be trimmed into wreaths and garland and boughs the next day. He called them Charlie Brown trees. They were in a darkened back corner of the lot.

    “You can have one of those for $15.00” the attendant allowed. Charlotte and I looked. They were true Charlie Brown trees, and they were a mess. But at the bottom of the leaning pile, we pulled out one that was less a mess than the others. Basically only half a tree, crooked, with a gaping bald spot on the good side, it still had…something. We paid the man with the last of our grocery money, tied the tree to the top of our trusty Taurus Stationwagon, and took our tree home.

    We had plenty of decorations and lights, and together we went to work on our tree. Our efforts to put it in a stand, and get it straight, were hopeless. I wound up tying it in place in the corner and to the ceiling with fishing line to get even semi-straight. I took artificial pine garland and threaded it in and out of the bald spot until you couldn’t even tell it was there. And then we loaded it down with lights and ornaments. It was beautiful. And while we have had other pretty Christmas Trees over the years, our Charlie Brown tree has remained, fondly, the most memorable one we ever had

    And now having written this, I realized I could have turned it into a devotion. Oh well, if you see it again, don’t tell anybody. 😀

    Another wonderful installment Susan!


    1. “There rolled around one Christmas early in our early Tennessee adventure where we had no money.” Sigh. I must learn to proofread
      EARLY…like before I hit send.


  2. The professor loves reading these posts. Believe it or not, the professor loves roasted chestnuts.

    Hmm…memorable holiday? Probably one when the professor was very young, but I can’t really remember.

    Dark clothing is always better anyways! 🙂


    1. And here you are. Your “like” showed up, but akismet spam had you locked up in the spam bucket. That’s just…so punchy of them.

      Roasted chestnuts are awesome. I’m glad you enjoy the posts. It’s therapy for me writing them. In leaving Portugal in 1990 left half of my heart behind there. I hope to organize them into a book for my children and grandchildren if no one else wants to read them.


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