Christmas on Madeira anno 1896

Some of the native ceremonies on fête days are peculiarly interesting. I recollect well the Christmas I spent in Madeira.

It was a beautiful day; the birds chirped merrily in the gardens and the bright rays of the sun beamed radiantly in through the half-opened windows of the little English church.

A resident English clergyman had charge of it, the only English church on the island. It is a very picturesque- looking building, surrounded by a most lovely garden, standing back from the road, a narrow pathway leading up to it between two rows of trees and bushes, whose spreading branches joined overhead, make a natural covered archway to the main entrance.

Dinner was taken at Baroness Conceicão’s, and the afternoon passed right merrily. During the entire day the streets of Funchal were completely deserted. The mystery of this was afterwards explained by the fact that the native population spend their Christmas by congregating in one another’s houses and eating pig.

Another part of the Christmas celebration consists in making as much noise as possible. From early dawn till late at night a banging and booming rent the air as cannons, fire-crackers, gims and bombs exploded momentarily.

One felt really as though the island were under fusillade. In short, it seemed like a regular old-fashioned Yankee Fourth of July celebration. Certainly, it did not seem a fit celebration of the blessed Christmas Day, at any rate.

Now, New Year’s eve and New Year’s day, curiously enough, appear to be celebrated the world over in almost identical fashions. This is very noticeable, I think, in the different countries of Europe.

In Switzerland, especially, New Year’s day is celebrated with great eclaty and after the manner in which we celebrate it here in America. Just so among the Madeirans; on New Year’s eve, the discharge of musketry and cannon ”welcoming in the New Year”‘ is constant and tremendous, rendering sleep out of the question.

New Year’s day is taken up with feasting, and mumming in the streets is also a sport largely participated in. It is furthermore a religious custom to fly kites on that day. However, kite flying is at all seasons the great predominating and ever popular pastime of the islanders.

A fete day or a religious celebration – at either of which times there is always a legal holiday – takes place on the general average of once a week throughout the entire year, in Madeira. On these occasions kite flying is indulged in as the principal amusement.

A passage from the book THE MADEIRA ISLANDS by Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (1896)