Normally Christmas is a time for staying at home wrapping up warm and overindulging in chocolate with loved ones, but for those who want to escape the UK for a more tropical festive feel, Madeira in Portugal could be the ideal Christmas getaway.
This is a paid article written in partnership with Discover Madeira, with products or services supplied by them. Full editorial integrity is maintained at all times. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.
For many people the idea of spending Christmas travelling somewhere new is unthinkable. The idea of missing loved ones, not indulging in favourite traditions or food or even missing out on a good old favourite Christmas song is enough to keep people at home, but as someone who has spent the last twenty years travelling the world and has spent more than one Christmas abroad, I can tell you spending Christmas overseas is a unique way to enjoy the season, learn to appreciate what you have a lot more and create some amazing memories along the way! So when I got the chance to experience Christmas in Madeira, an island just off Portugal, I didn’t hesitate.
With so many travellers desperate to travel again and escape the UK, Madeira is the perfect festive getaway for those who want the warmth of a tropical sun but don’t want to miss out on all the Christmas fun and festivities.
Madeira’s winter season is generally extremely pleasant, especially by UK standards. With the exception of the occasional storm blowing in from the Atlantic the weather is usually warm and pleasant on the coast, and slightly cooler and a little wetter up in the mountains, basically like late Spring in the UK! So you won’t get a white Christmas here, but you can certainly get a nice Christmas tan!
But don’t let that fool you. When Madeira does Christmas, it really does Christmas!
From the first of December Madeira’s capital Funchal, already a beautifully charming, laid back and gentrified town, explodes in a blaze of festive light.
Fairy lights adorn every tree and back streets are festooned with illuminated decoration, giving the entire town a festive glow. The now ubiquitous lighted cone tree can be found on the waterfront and is joined by a 3D light show tunnel and large Insta worthy baubles.
A walk along Funchal’s emblazoned waterfront is enough to put even the Grinchiest of Scrooges into the Christmas spirit! Seeing couples enjoying a walk among the lights hand in hand and stopping occasionally for some roasted chestnuts is like seeing a Hallmark Christmas movie come to life.
But it wouldn’t be a Christmas abroad if you didn’t explore some unique local customs too. I know Christmas is generally a time for tradition and familiarity, but seeing what is tradition in other places can be just as nice in many ways and what is surprising is not how different the Christmas traditions are between the UK and Madeira, but quite often how close they are.
Christmas in Madeira, much like in the UK, has a close association to the Christian Nativity scene, and just like at home it is common to see them set up all over the island. In many ways the Nativity theme is the same as the UK, but in Madeira the Nativity cribs are set up slightly differently, either in the form of a staircase, or in a rock shape, and are known as Lapinha.
The staircase Lapinha is the most common one and consists of a small altar with three shelves, usually placed inside a home on a small table. The table is covered with a red table cloth and then another white, lacy one, and a small statue of the baby jesus is then placed on the top shelf, followed by the other nativity figures on te second, with seasonal, festive fruits, nuts and wheat seeds on the third.
The rock Lapinha is much larger grotto style nativity and often community affairs such as the one in Curral Das Freiras or the Nuns Valley, as large representations of the island are made in the form of a large rock to imitate the mountains and valleys, including small lakes, streams and waterfalls, and then miniature houses, churches and figurines recreate the nativity scene surrounded again by fruits, nuts and seeds.
The traditional market night on the 23rd December is the perfect way to get yourself in the festive spirit. Once held as the last chance for locals to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for Christmas, the farmers market is now filled with fresh, regional produce, Christmas flowers and of course the now ubiquitous Christmas drink! Live bands and street food stalls create the quintessential Madeiran Christmas experience and it will give you the chance to catch up on some last minute Christmas shopping and enjoy the bands and festive atmosphere.
And of course, no festive season would be complete without it’s own foodie traditions, and Madeira is no exception!
Skewered meat is popular throughout the year in Madeira, and delicious too, but at Christmas each family has its own recipe for carne de vinha d’alhos, a skewered pork marinated in garlic and white wine, and if there was a taste of Christmas in Madeira, this would be it! Everywhere you go at Christmas time you will be offered some of this delicious meat, and locals often marinate large batches in advance to serve to guests. Another popular variation on this, especially at markets and street stalls, is basically the same marinated meat but in easy, bite sized sandwich form! A Christmas sandwich that certainly puts the old UK leftover turkey butty to shame!
Another popular Christmas dish is simple, old fashioned chicken soup! Nothing overly fancy about it but it is traditionally made on Christmas night in Madeira and served with traditional bolo de caco bread made out of sweet potato!
But wholsesome, healthy food is only a small part of the Christmas experience, what everyone really wants is the good stuff! The sweets, cakes and of course the alcohol! Honey cookies, made of locally grown and unique sugar cane honey are a mandatory Christmas treat, as is the traditional Madeiran honey cake, made out of the same sugar cane honey and very similar to the UK’s very own fruit cake.
And of course you have to wash all of this down with a good drink! The poncha drink made of local lemon and rum, both grown and distilled locally on the island is always popular, but at Christmas the bit traditional drinks are home made local fruit liqueurs, the banana, passionfruit and tangerine ones are my favourite, but take my advice and stay away from any of the green ones!
But I think perhaps the part I loved most about my visit to Madeira wasn’t just the traditions or the decorations or the food, although my God I really loved the food! It was the people themselves. Madeirans are hospitable and welcoming to a fault, a result of an island that has been dependent on trade and tourism since it was founded by the Portuguese in 1419, and if you can’t be with family at Christmas you may as well be with people who will treat you as if you were.
Christmas in Madeira is a perfect Christmas getaway for anyone who wants to travel toward some tropical sunshine over the festive period, but doesn’t want to fly too far from the UK and still wants at least a little familiarity in the traditions and atmosphere. So if you want your Christmas dinner with a little sunshine, why not fly to Madeira for an easy break?
Madeira is an extremely safe destination to travel to as the current SarsCov2 pandemic still affects much of the worlds tourism destinations. With relatively low case numbers and low risk, Madeira has put in place a range of strict measures to reduce the risk to travellers and locals as much as possible. The downloadable Madeira Safe App is a way of tracking and monitoring symptoms in new arrivals on the island and is easy to use and effective. Just download it before you go and enter your details. A PCR test is administered to all new arrivals at Funchal’s airport and is completely free, or you can pay to have one done at home and present proof of a negative test on arrival or via the app. Finally when you arrive in Madeira every business and operator has implemented strong and robust infection prevention control measures to help reduce risk too. The risk of the pandemic is already very low for anyone travelling to Madeira and these measures, alongside your own personal health and hygiene measures, will ensure it stays that way.
Christmas in Madeira is different enough to give you a sense of discovery as you explore a new culture and surroundings, but at the same time familiar enough to get you in the festive spirit and allow you to enjoy a truly different Madeiran Christmas!
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