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‘A Festa’ Christmas in Madeira is a Party

Isn’t it fascinating how across the world where Christmas is celebrated, each country puts its own unique mark on the festivities? In sunny, subtropical Madeira, magnificent Christmas lights that cover Funchal, an impressive fireworks show on New Year’s Eve and a whole calendar of activities throughout December make the island one of the best places to experience the ambience of this special time of year.


Christmas, known on the island as ‘A Festa’ kicks off at the beginning of December with music and twinkling lights – and as the name indicates, it’s a party! A party that doesn’t stop until the 15th of January with the ‘Sweeping of the Cupboards’, celebrated on Santo Amaro’s day when all the decorations are put away and families finish off the last of the Christmas cakes.

The lights of Funchal are turned on the 1st of December, bringing magic to the streets of the capital. Smaller squares, streets and homes follow suit dazzling with illuminated decorations. You’ll be amazed by creativity on show, the streets of Funchal are an impressive and immersive spectacle, inviting visitors and locals to walk among the sculptural light displays and through glittering tunnels and into giant Christmas trees. Real trees are threaded with lights, festive scenes and objects glow, delighting children and adults alike. The capital’s light show culminates on December 31 with a fireworks display, taking place at midnight to welcome in the new year.


In Madeira, large-scale decorations don’t stop at lights, complex nativity scenes are often put up in squares and homes. This is a Christmas tradition which Madeirans have adapted in their own unique way and known as - ‘Lapinha’. They decorate every house, chapel and square, depicting not only the nativity scene but also paying homage to the island and its history. Some Madeiran nativity scenes might depict a whole village, complete with shepherds, fishermen, embroiderers, tinkers, washerwomen and even levadeiros (men who care for the levadas, those distinctive irrigations channels, specific to the island). Whilst other nativity scenes combine what we in the UK would more readily associate with a harvest festival with fruit, pots filled with wheat and barley, nuts, ferns, local flowers and even wine adorning the traditional scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. These act as small alters celebrating the bounty of the land and the attachment that Madeiran’s have to nature and the land that provides them with sustenance. Whichever way you look at it, island life is celebrated alongside the commemoration of the birth of Jesus.


Aside from all the decorations, food also plays a key part in the island festivities. Wander the streets at this time of year and you’ll find that the aroma of ‘vinha d’alhos’ fills the air. This traditional dish of meat marinated in garlic and wine is a favourite throughout December when family and friends gather for meals. This dish is mostly served during Christmas, so make sure you try it when you’re visiting the island over the festive period.
As the countdown to Christmas day nears, on the 8th of December families unite to make another traditional delicacy - ‘bolos de mel’. Each family has its own unique way of making these cane honey cakes, considered to be Madeira’s oldest dessert. The first Bolos de Mel was created by nuns in the Convent of Santa Clara, Funchal back in the 15th century, so you can imagine how over time personal touches have been handed down through generations when it comes to preparing and baking these cakes. Nuts and crystallized fruits from South America and Africa unite with Eastern spices, all blended together with Madeiran cane honey. Many bakeries produce bolos de mel, but if you are visiting Madeira over the festive period, why not plan in a trip to a local or dedicated Christmas market to pick up one or two to take home? 


On December 23rd, Funchal holds its annual ‘Market Night’. It’s a Farmers’ Market where locals do their last-minute fresh fruit and flower shopping ready for Christmas. Stalls are packed out with fruit, the catch of the day, and flowers like poinsettias or Sapatinho orchids. Stalls are strung with lights and there’s a real sense of community as carols are sung, with everyone welcome to join in.

Visiting Madeiran markets is a real treat at any time of year, the rich and fertile lands produce delicious fruits and vegetables, normally available at the end of the week in local squares. During A Festa there are also antique and artisanal markets stalls you can visit on weekdays to buy cakes, handicrafts and visit stalls by urban designers selling clothes and accessories, that make great gifts and mementos.

Away from all the festive fun, don’t miss out on all the other incredible activities and experiences the island has to offer. From its beautiful beaches, perfect for soaking up the sun, enjoying water sports or joining a whale or dolphin watching tour, to its stunning verdant landscapes which are a hiker’s paradise, there’s plenty to explore in between December’s busy party calendar. Get a view of the entire island and the blue ocean that surrounds it, by riding one of the cable cars in Funchal. There are two to choose from, the Madeira Cable Car and the Botanical Garden Cable Car. The scenery from each ride is stunning – you'll see the mountains in Monte and a 360 degree view of Funchal from the Madeira Cable Car or the green hills and Laurissilva forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Try basket sledging, taste some Madeiran wine and go and visit Santa’s triangle-shaped houses.

Curious about visiting Madeira at this unique and special time of year? The island of eternal spring welcomes you like no other to experience its pleasant climate and unique festive traditions. Contact us today to start planning your trip to beautiful Madeira. 

The Advantage Travel Partnership

Dec 22 2022
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