Portuguese Culture

What Epiphany Means in Portugal: A Surprise to Me

What does Epiphany mean in Portugal, and how is it celebrated? The day the three Wise Men came to pay their respects to the baby Jesus is the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany is also called Twelfth Night. 

Some people believe that you should only take down your Christmas tree and decorations on Twelfth Night.  Doing so early could be bad luck.  If you forget, you should keep them up until Candlemas Day, February 2nd (which I have always just known as Groundhog’s Day).  Perhaps this is why my luck has been not-so-good from time to time.  I have always taken my tree and decorations down anytime on or after New Year’s Day. My bad.

Epiphany Was Mostly Unknown to Me

I have been a United Methodist, perhaps in name only, for a large portion of my life.  That is to say that I was not a practicing Christian for most of my life.  I did not spend much time going to church except during my teenage years then not again until my 40’s.  I did eventually build a particular understanding of Christianity, and I developed what I call a personal relationship with God. 

There are things about Christianity as a religion that I still don’t understand and in fact disagree with. Those are personal beliefs that I have concluded over my lifetime. 

My Prior Experience with Epiphany

One of the celebrated days within Christianity that I knew almost nothing about was Epiphany. I first heard of Epiphany while living in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.  On Epiphany, January 6th (or the first Sunday after January 1st in the USA), the Greek Orthodox community in Tarpon Springs, Florida, holds the largest Epiphany festival in the country. 

In western churches, Epiphany is the celebration of the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus (a.k.a. Three Kings Day). In the Orthodox churches, it is the celebration of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.  

That festival is a two-day celebration that includes a blessing of the Sponge Dock fleet and then the blessing of the waters in the area.  All I remember about the festival was from reading news reports. A high-ranking official from the Greek Orthodox Church would throw a wooden cross in the waters of Spring Bayou. Dozens of teenage boys would then dive in to retrieve it.  Whoever comes up with it reportedly would have good fortune and “divine beneficence” for the year.

What Epiphany is in Portugal

In Portugal, Epiphany is called O Dia dos Reis (Kings Day).  The Three Wise Men were the first to deliver Christmas presents, but the job has since been taken over by Father Christmas. 

On the night of January 5, children leave their shoes by the door filled with straw and carrots for the horses of the Magi who will visit during the night.  In return, sweets and cakes are left in the shoes for the children as presents from the Magi.  The Dia dos Reis festival marks the end of the Christmas season and all the Christmas decorations are taken down the next day.

During the period between New Year’s Day and Epiphany, you may often find carolers singing traditional New Year’s carols called Janeiras Cantares dos Reis.  These carolers will go house to house singing and playing traditional instruments. In return, they are given food, drink, sweets, or money.  The lyrics and traditions of this may vary from region to region, but this is a tradition I am looking forward to observing and enjoying.

An Interesting Tradition From One Small Portuguese Town

During my research of Epiphany in Portugal, I found a couple of articles (here and here) about how they celebrate it in a small town called Vale de Salgueiro.  This may be shocking to most people who read about this.

One of the peculiar things that they do in this town is the adults allow and encourage young children to smoke cigarettes during the celebration.  Children as young as five can be seen smoking. This practice has been scorned in the media for over fifteen years, but the locals reject judgment from the world.  People over a hundred years old remember the tradition as they grew up.  Nobody really knows the origin of this practice, but it is almost a right of passage.  

As a person raised in America, this practice seems a bit uncomfortable to accept without quiet judgment of my own.  I know I would never allow my kids to do this. However, I’m a person who understands that there are many traditions, whether religious or not, that I would never want to do.  I will keep my judgment to myself, but I cannot conceal my surprise.

Looking Forward to Epiphany in Portugal

I am glad to know more about this special holiday that I have given little attention to over my life. From what I have learned, Portugal celebrates this day with more reverence than I have given it.  I look forward to being enlightened by the people of Portugal with all types of traditions and celebrations that I have never known about or considered.


Contact us if you have any comments or questions about this or any other post. We love hearing from our readers.

Would you like to receive our monthly newsletter about Portugal? Once we move there in 2022, it will be twice a month. Simply fill out the form below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *