Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Portuguese Children

Portuguese children are taught to be very respectful to their parents, and those of the upper classes are carefully educated. It is the fashionable thing to have foreign nurses for them—English, French, or German—so that they may grow up to be good linguists. They go out for their daily walks and amuse themselves much like English boys and girls, hide-and-seek being a very favourite game; and they are just as fond as we are of hearing fairy-tales. They know all the old ones—"Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and many others, besides many of the old Portuguese folk stories and legends, which are gradually dying out, but which are still firmly believed in by most of the peasants, and some of which I will tell you about presently. Girls generally have foreign governesses as they grow older, and the boys go to school very early. They work for long hours and have many examinations to pass.

In Lisbon the young fellows play football and tennis, which they have taken from the English; but the Portuguese people are not naturally given to playing games. The little ones of the poorer classes have hardly any education at all, and are only too often to be seen begging in the streets.

The one event in the year which the town children look forward to above all others is the Carnival. In Lisbon this is a great time for them, though many of the old customs are gradually disappearing, for, alas! in Portugal, as elsewhere, there are many people who think that the old-time ways are not sufficiently up-to-date. The Carnival used to last for many days, and all kinds of practical jokes were played, some of them not at all amusing for the luckless folk who were the victims. Strings were tied across the road to trip people up. Water was squirted at the passers-by, or gloves full of sand and packets of flour thrown down on them from the windows. Oftener, however, there would be pleasanter missiles—bouquets, buttonholes, and bonbons—which were caught and returned by the gay throng. All this is modified nowadays, but a good deal of frolic still goes on, and it is considered great fun to pin papers on people's backs—"tails" they are called. Many nice and some nasty presents and letters are sent anonymously to friends through the post.

Then, also, there are masquerades, when people go about in fancy costume, decorated carts are seen in the streets, and the whole town gives itself up to amusement. Masked balls take place in the theatres, everyone going in fancy dress, and wearing little black masks, so that no one is supposed to know with whom they are dancing, and many of the "costume balls "in smart society are given during the Carnival.

Some other festivals that are particularly looked forward to by children are St. Anthony's Day, on June 13; St. John the Baptist's Day, on the 24th; and St. Peter's Day, on the 29th. Small altars, decorated with flowers and tiny candles, are placed on the door-steps by poor children who run after the passers-by begging for farthings "for the good Saint"; but it is the children, and not the "good Saint," who benefit by the contributions.

On the eves of these saints' days all children, if they can, rich and poor alike, delight in letting off fireworks, and in the evening crackers and squibs may be heard on all sides.

At about this time of year the girls have many superstitions about marriage. They throw thistles on the large bonfires which are lighted, thinking meanwhile of some lover. These thistles are left out of doors during the night and the following day, and if they remain green, they believe they will be fortunate in their love affairs, but if black and burnt, oh sorrow! no love is to be expected from the one thought of. It is to be feared that under these circumstances there must be many disappointments, unless, indeed, a little mild cheating be resorted to. There is also an old custom of gathering rushes on St. John's Eve. Lovers each cut a rush of equal length, and if in the morning one is found to be longer than the other, the love of the person who cut it is supposed to be the more true and lasting.

Certain plants and flowers are looked on as being lucky, and special virtue is supposed to attach to them if picked on the morning of St. John the Baptist's Day. In many parts there are legends of beautiful enchanted Moorish maidens, who are doomed to live in deep wells, but are allowed to appear early on that morning, and ask of those who come to draw water some boon which may break the spell that binds them.

St. Anthony is supposed to be the match-maker among the saints. In the church dedicated to him in Lisbon there is a letter-box where young people post letters, asking the Saint to find them sweethearts, and if their love affairs prosper, they sometimes post cheques and other thank-offerings to him in the same little box in church. The priests read the letters, and also stand proxy for St. Anthony in the matter of pocketing the money.

It is not only the children who make merry on the eves of these three saints' days. In Lisbon the common people spend the night at the Praca da Figueira—the market-place—which is beautifully decorated with flowers and fruit, some hanging in bunches or, sticks. Men and women buy pots of "Majarico"—a sweet-smelling plant, in the middle of which is stuck a large paper pink with some sweet love-verse, and these pinks are presented and accepted with pleasure by both men and women. Farther north, and especially at Coimbra and Figueira, these festivals are most remarkable. There are bonfires and music; the men and women dress in the picturesque costumes of the country, the women wearing, as on all festive occasions, a great deal of very handsome gold jewellery, for they spend most of their earnings on these quaint ornaments, and are very proud of them. There is much guitar-playing by the men, and all join in the popular Portuguese dances, "Ver-de-Gaio" and others, and sing the most lovely romantic songs.