Islanders remember Portuguese Christmas traditions

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The Coutinho and Paiva family were traveling Christmas performers in years gone by. — Courtesy Coutinho and Paiva Family

Interviews by Linsey Lee
Excerpted from “More Vineyard Voices” by Linsey Lee and the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. More oral histories are available at mvmuseum.org.

Mary Paiva Drouin, 1922 – 2006

(from a 2002 interview)

Christmas Eve, that was the day for caroling. It started really with my uncle, John Coutinho, who played the violin, and Lester Perry played the guitar, and my father used to be the lead singer. In the old days they used to take the horse and wagon, go up to Tea Lane Farm, and sing up there. Oh, they had lots of fun in those days.

After my Uncle John died, my cousin Frankie took over the violin, my brother, Ciggy Paiva, played the guitar, my cousin, Johnny Coutinho, played the guitar, and, of course, I had my dancing dolls that they brought from Portugal. I took my father’s place and sang. And my sisters and cousins would sing too. Mal King used to play — what do you call that damn thing? The bass viol? He used to take that with him, even in the snow, cart that thing around.

We would go out about six. Early, because we had so many houses to go to. When we got to a house we’d sing the song, we call it “Abra la Porta.” I’ll sing it for you in Portuguese. That means, “Please would you open the door? We want to bring you greetings for the Baby Jesus.”

We’d get in there, and everybody they got to wish you a Merry Christmas. They’d have all kinds of goodies to eat, and you’ve got to have a drink first to get you warmed up, you know; coffee or whatever you want. That was nice, too, because nobody got drunk. If you had a drink, it just kept you warm, because it was cold in those days.

We’d go through the routine of songs in Portuguese and some in English. And then we would sing the song in Portuguese: “We ate, we did all these things at your home,” and it goes out like that. “And now we’re ready to leave, and thank you for being so kind to us.”

Sometimes, like at Nellie Amaral’s, we’d be there an hour and a half. She would clean out that kitchen of hers, and we’d dance the chamarita there. We had a blast!

At each house, well, at all the old-timers’, they had a little manger, a crèche, with the Baby Jesus. They’d set them up in the corner, and they had stairways, and on every step there were different things, and plants all around. There’s a kind of wheat they grew in a glass, and it grows tall and bushes out. It’s so pretty. And they’d have fruits and nuts and anything that’s edible, even a piece of cake. They’d put all that there for the Baby Jesus. And they’d put embroidered cloths down and they’d really fancy up the altars. They were very pretty.

We’d sing at the altar. My brother Ciggy, everyone wanted him to play and sing the “Baby Christ Child.” He had a good voice, and everyone was crying as he would sing.

We used to go from house to house. We walked most of the time. People used to join us, too. I don’t know how we did it, but we never got tired. Cold as it was, too. We’d get home at three or four in the morning.

These are my dancing dolls. They have the little bells here, then they have the castanets of metal caps, and this is how you play them [playing and singing in Portuguese]. It has two rows of dancing dolls, a little boy doll and a little girl doll, all the way around — 11 little figures there.

Betty Alley, 1912 – 2009

(from a 1995 interview)

And then Christmas Eve they used to go around and sing Portuguese songs. They’d go from house to house and sing. They’d go to the different houses where Portuguese families lived. The men would play their banjos and the mandolin. And you could hear them play all the way down the street. And it would be pretty to listen to them. I remember standing upstairs at my bedroom listening out the window.

Betty Alley said you could hear the men play banjos and mandolins all the way down the street. — Linsey Lee

And the Chamarita — that was a beautiful dance. There was a lady down the end of our street where I lived, and she was one of the best dancers. Little old lady, too. Everybody used to go to her house at Christmas. They always dropped in, and they danced the Chamarita there. And from our house we could hear them singing and dancing.

Her name was Caroline Pachico. We used to call her Tia Carlinda, which is — everybody had to be a tia because tia’s aunt, you know, in Portuguese. For an older lady, someone you knew, you always had some sort of respect. So they were all tia. So, she was Tia Carlinda.

Alice Coutinho, 1914 – 2007

(from a 1997 interview)

And, oh, Portuguese holidays! Christmas is the biggest one. At Christmastime they’d go around singing and playing guitars and violins. On Christmas Eve they’d go around knocking at the doors and waking people up. And they’d stamp on the porch and play, singing a song in Portuguese, and say, “Owner of the house, please open the door to us.” And they’d come in, and inside they’d have an altar to Jesus and wheat growing and all these decorations. We had beautiful figurines brought from the old country, statues, you know. The Baby Jesus and everything. And embroidered skirts around the altar. They would have some food and some wine. And they would sing all night, going door to door. The last thing they would sing, “A Bom Natal,” which meant a good Christmas, a good Nativity.

Alice Coutinho rushed out of bed to listen to the Portuguese songs when she was a little girl. — Linsey Lee

One time it was snowing. They came here, and the lady next door woke up in the night and she told me the next day, “I woke up and I thought I was in heaven! I heard these violins playing.” And it was them walking up the street singing and playing along.

John’s family had a big part in it. John played the guitar, his father played violin very well, and his cousin Ciggy sang and played the guitar. And his cousin played the dancing dolls. They went out Christmas and New Year. They kept going for a long time. At the end of the evening they would come by here and the children would rush out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs and listen. They’d sing all the religious songs and then they’d branch out to other songs and roll back the rugs and dance. I went one night, and I didn’t get home until morning! But it got so after awhile it kind of fell away.

Anthony King, 1925 – 2003

(from a 1998 interview)

What did we do at Christmas? Well, we played music. We went around from house to house and played for people and, of course, they always had the big table in the living room loaded with food and drinks and whatnot. Every house would be that way, waiting for us to come around and play at the door.

My father and I and other guys, we used to form a group and we used to go and my sisters used to follow, and we’d play at the door and sing in Portuguese. My godfather, Ciggy Paiva’s father, used to do the singing. But then it got cold some nights, walking around, and we’d sing and sing and people in the house would stand there by the door and listen to catch what he was singing, what was he saying, because it was live, a fado, and you made up your words, what you were singing. You made up words about a certain person, made up words about them, and so they’d open the door and they’d stay there and listen and listen. Yeah, that’s what we did.

LL: Would it be sort of a funny thing that they’d be singing?

AK: Yeah. And midnight Mass, at church, we all went to church midnight Mass, and I sang in the choir. I sang for nine years in the church choir, which I enjoyed very much.

Museum conversations

Join museum docents to learn about and discuss a new Island topic each month through stories, photographs, oral histories, and artifacts as museum staff visit the Tisbury Council on Aging, Center for Living at the Anchors, Windemere, Howes House, Edgartown library, and the Memory Cafe at the American Legion.

December’s celebration is titled “Portuguese Christmas — Sweets, Songs, and Stories.” Do you remember the caravan of carolers who would sing door-to-door in the Portuguese tradition on Christmas Eve (1915 to 1960)? Did you stay up late to await their arrival, and offer them treats for their journey? Come learn about this joyful and heartwarming tradition. We’ll try the brinquinho (the dancing dolls instrument traditionally played), hear oral histories, and sample Portuguese sweets. Bring examples of your own holiday traditions to share and remember.