EuNIC-Europe: European Information Center for Culture

Culture in Portugal

Portugal is a European nation on the Iberian peninsula in southwestern Europe. With claims to being the oldest established nation-state in European, having been established as an independent kingdom in 1139, Portugal also lays claims to having had one of the largest and longest-surviving European empires, lasting for almost 600 years. Portuguese culture is a homogenous one and though cultural traditions do vary from province to province, in general there is a strong feeling of national identity.

An overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, Portugal is nevertheless a secular state with formal separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. Many national holidays, festivals and traditions are rooted in the Christian tradition, however, and while fewer Portuguese are actively church-going than before, Portuguese culture remains strongly influenced by the Christian tradition.

A nation yearns

Nothing defines the culture of Portugal more than fado – an enormously popular form of song and performance that dates back to the early 19th century and combines Moorish, African and Portuguese elements. Fado is derived from the Latin word for “fate” and expresses sadness, yearning and regret. Fado is so important to the Portuguese that when one of their most popular proponents of the genre Amália Rodrigues, died in 1999, three days of national mourning were declared. Fado has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Folk dances that vary from region to region are very popular in Portugal with specific dress worn for each.

Time for fiesta

Perhaps the most significant part of Portuguese culture is in its annual fiestas and carnivals in which the entire nation participates. January 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, has great significance and is a date on which families gather to participate in specific rituals, such as eating “bolo-rei” – a cake made with crystallised fruits. Other popular festivals are Santos Populares in June, which are public holidays and people take to the streets to dance, eat and party. Carnival, held on Shrove Tuesday, is also widely celebrated with large parades in the bigger towns and cities. An integral part of Portuguese culture is a black comedy that satirises and lampoons politicians, a reaction to decades of military rule.