The Portugal Years: Year Three – Bethy’s First Christmas and Other Stories

Bethy's First Christmas (4 months old)
Bethy’s First Christmas (4 months old)

Our Portugal Christmases were always fairly simple and small present-wise. We never felt hard done-by though. ”Things” come and go. Bethy’s giggles at that age made us smile. We had enough.

We lived off of the economy in Portugal (meaning that with few exceptions and as much as possible we lived as the Portuguese lived). Occasionally someone sent some things from the states. I was yearning to have a red velveteen dress for Bethy for Christmas. Right before Christmas one arrived from a dear friend in the states.

She is bundled up almost to the point of being unable to move in the photo. It was cold. Homes did not have central heating, and there were always a few months when it would have come in handy. The houses also had no insulation. We layered clothes on and off as needed. It was the Portuguese way!
Somewhere in the crazy year after Bethy was born, our landlady demanded a raise in rent. We tried to negotiate with her for less than she asked. She was one of the Portuguese who saw dollar signs when dealing with Americans. We probably did have more than most of them. Extortion, however, was not the way to our hearts.

We left Queijas and set up housekeeping in the Municipality of Loures. The grocery and bakery were handy to our new home. Our apartment was on the first floor up just one flight of stairs and we were permitted to use the ground floor garage for storage purposes. Our landlords were kind and lived in the second floor apartment. They had a six-year-old daughter who liked to talk to us. Next door a small family cared for the wife’s aunt. An ancient cathedral brooded at the other end of the street, and across the street was the best perk of the move: a beautiful park within walking distance.

Around that same time we learned that Harry’s youngest sister was getting married in June. And that meant an early furlough in the states. I was not enthusiastic. For me, it wasn’t “home” anymore. I loved where we lived and loved the people among whom we lived.

Early in May, I got a phone call from my mom. My grandfather had suffered a heart attack, and passed away. This is the grandfather who gave us a home during many of my growing up years. He bought me bicycles and built a sandbox for me. He could cook up a heavenly mess of fresh green beans and bacon, and his ‘mater sandwiches fashioned with mayonnaise and freshly picked tomatoes from the garden were summer’s delight. Unfortunately, he also had a bad habit of being very inappropriate with ladies old and young. The older ladies could duck and blow off the attention which he felt entitled to dole out. My sister and I, however, were unable to defend ourselves.

All of the conflicting emotions drove me to pick up my daughter and a blanket and go sit in the park with the other nursing mothers. At least, I thought at the end of the day, my daughter was safe from his unwanted attention. In two weeks, we would be on a jet heading west.

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.)