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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Ancient Yule Bonfires Still Burn Today in Portugal

Updated: Jan 1

“Faithful maintainers of old and beautiful traditions” (Photo from Penamacor Municipality)


At Christmastime, tractor-loads of huge trees and stumps make their way to final resting places in Portuguese villages, towns and cities, building outdoor hearths for the extended families of communities to warm themselves and exchange friendly greetings.     


The Christmas bonfire, or Madeiro, lights up the short days of winter while piercing the dark and the cold, especially from Trás-os-Montes in the north to the Beiras and Alto Alentejo in the heart of the country, including the districts of Bragança, Castelo Branco, Coimbra, Guarda and Portalegre.


It is often lit before or after the Missa do Galo, or midnight Mass on December 24, and near churches. Some villages in the Municipality of Oliveira do Hospital, Coimbra District, and elsewhere, keep the fire going until January 6, the Epiphany, a Christian holiday commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.


“Traditionally a cold night, bare trees raising their arms to the sky, deserted fields, paths without travelers, Christmas Eve has I don’t know what kind of anointing, of poetry, which makes everyone, Christians and atheists, believers and freethinkers, to gather, coming from the greatest distances, to the comfort and holy conviviality of the family.


“And, our people, faithful maintainers of old and beautiful traditions, so that even the poorest people do not get cold, will still place large tree trunks in the churchyard today, which, in honor of the Child, will burn and die in a lively brazier all night Christmas Eve,” said Jaime Lopes Dias (1890-1977) in Ethnography of Beira (1944-1977), according to Folclore de Portugal.


His friend, José Leite de Vasconcellos (1858-1941), the renowned ethnologist, wrote a letter as a preface to Ethnography of Beira, an 11-volume work on the Beira Baixa. However, as Leite de Vasconcellos, native son of Ucanha, Municipality of Tarouca, in Viseu District, pointed out, many legends and traditions are common to other regions, though there may be variations.


Jaime Lopes Dias (1890-1977) was born in Vale do Lobo, now known as Vale da Senhora da Póvoa), District of Castelo Branco, in the Municipality of Penamacor, where the wood gathering begins on December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, though the fires are lit around Christmas Eve. People of military-service age throughout the municipality cut and transport the logs that will feed the fire to warm Baby Jesus, according to the government website.


In Penamacor, “the population generously takes to the streets to greet the procession of tractors and trailers.” (Photo by @ Armando Saldanha (Aldrabiscas)


 “The population generously takes to the streets to greet the procession of tractors and trailers, in numbers that always try to beat the previous number, where the young people, previously only boys and now also girls, perched on the trunks, throw the fruits of orange branches and sing accompanied by the concertina.


“But things didn’t always go so peacefully. There were times when finding firewood for Madeiro was a much more complicated task. Dependent on the goodwill of local rich houses, whose offers were less than desired, the young people found themselves having to steal firewood, all under cover of night.”


In a village in Oliveira do Hospital, there is still a playful tradition of stealing a tree from an unsuspecting owner in the dead of night.


The Madeiro has not been forgotten in Penamacor, nearly 50 years after the death of its native son, Jaime Lopes Dias, an ethnographer who wrote about it.


Different stories are told about the history of the queima do madeira and its celebration.


José Carlos Vilhena Mesquita, associate professor of Economics at the University of Algarve, works in the area of Social Science. He wrote in Diário de Notícias (December 24, 1982):


“According to tradition, it is preferable for the stump to be from an olive tree, a tree of peace, because the cross of Christ was made of this wood.


“On the other hand, there are associated profane traditions such as the thicker it was, the fatter the pig for the slaughter of the year. Furthermore, it is also given supernatural powers: the unburned remains will be kept as they protect the home from thunderstorms and other divine wrath.


“As a rule, many dramatic legends are told against those who violate tradition and the belief of the people. Basically, the incineration of wood or stump is nothing more than the revitalization of the symbolic fire originating from a pagan rite.”

According to Reconquista (December 26, 2019):


“Even today, many wonder about the origins of this ancient tradition that dates back to ancient pagan cults, linked to the solstices, in rural communities. As far as we know today about the origin of the Christmas bonfires that exist in these regions of the country, they are not strictly linked to the day of the birth of Jesus, which is unknown, but to a pagan festival, in honor of Natale Solis Invictus, introduced throughout the Roman Empire by Emperor Aureliano, in the year 274.

“This solar festival had as its main purpose to worship a pagan god, linked to the winter solstice, at a time when the light of the sun was reborn, overcoming the darkness of the cold and dark nights.


“On the one hand, it served to centralize the various polytheistic cults. On the other, it achieved union of the empire, already showing signs of crisis, on the verge of being strangled due to the continuous and devastating attacks of the Germanic peoples.”


Queima do Madeiro by Frederico George (1947), CTT (Correios, Telégrafos e Telefones) Christmas postal stamp (1950)


In Ethnography of Beira, according to Folclore de Portugal, Jaime Lopes Dias (1890-1977) wrote:


“Ten, twenty, fifty years are enough to forget, transform or adulterate old customs. It has been said and repeated that it is necessary and urgent to collect and store with care and affection what we still have left, so that not everything is lost.”


The Madeiro has not been forgotten nearly 50 years after the death of the ethnographer.

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