Christmas Lights in Funchal

abundant Christmas Lights in Funchal

If we, in the North, are already excited if Christmas decorations appear before the first of Decembeer, here in Madeira decorations of houses and gardens start early November, and in the city of Funchal and elsewhere the first work teams of the municipality appear to put on Christmas lights.

We always wait until very close to Christmas, when everything works and troubles have been shot and everything is in full glory.
The people of Madeira are very fond of this. A couple of years ago there was a rather corrupt minister of tourism who thought that a boyfriend of hers would like to make a few millions by reenventing the Christmas lights. The theme would be the kapok tree, or rather, the color of the Kapok flowers. Purple. So Funchal had boring white light bulbs along the facades of the official buildings, and decorations of a dead purple. There was a threat of a serious popular uprising. That a minister is corrupt, they can let go. But don’t touch the Christmas lights. It has to be exuberantly southern European and far over the top. There were a few last-minute corrections made that year, but the people had made it clear they didn’t want ministers to mess with Christmas.
Luckily it was the last year of madam the corrupt minister and her successor got the message. Since then, in Funchal they go all out again when it comes to the Christmas lights. An improvement of the last years is the obligation to use LED lighting. In the old days, the Christmas lights in the city were switched on in phases. Usually this still resulted in a power outage at other places on the island – invariably in our area – and the government’s electricity bill was quite outrageous. The arrival of LED lighting put an end to this. Although strange enough, we still had a power outage when they switched on the lights in Funchal, probably a coincindence LOL. The power consumption is of course almost nothing compared to the old-fashioned incandescent lamp, and we haven’t had a power outage for a few years now – at least not caused by switching on the Christmas lights untill this year i must add.
So, when everything is ready, we really go out for a night to watch the lights. This year we even split it into two evenings: one in the city centre and one at the ocean front.
There are of course the traditional decorations above the streets, but also things like a canopy of lights above the three main watercourses in the city. These are each different in colour: blue, red and yellow. The yellow one is a bit further away from the centre, so we did not go that far.

a ceiling of Christmas lights above one of the riverbeds in Funchal
High above the city a glittering Madeiran flag
The breakwater in the Funchal harbour becomes a Christmas promenade

A thing of beauty is the flag of Madeira which is hung high above the city on a viaduct in the motorway. It was not there last year, but it is back again. Of course far over the top, but really beautiful.
On the Avenida do Mar, which runs along the ocean front, there is also a complete funfair, because little Jesus was born and that has to be celebrated! Oh, boy. The whole city is one chunk of tinsel, where there are no special Christmas lights the streets are lit with light cords so the whole city looks like a big sparkling black velvet cushion with lots of diamonds on it. Or, more likely, chunks of glistening glass. Christmas without bling-bling is impossible in Madeira!

We love it every year, we laugh our socks off about it here and there, some things are really tasteful, but we’re always happy when we’re back home with our civilized Christmas tree that fortunately doesn’t blink or change colour which is a local custom.

Another phenomenon apart from the lights on Madeira is the ‘Presépio’. The nativity scene. Quite a thing here, because a nativity scene is serious business. Some people empty a room in their house, and a Presépio is made in it. From ceiling to floor in a kind of paper that has to represent rocks, and then of course the Christmas figures themselves, but they play a very minor role. We went to the fire station of Calheta, and they had built a Presepio in their barracks in which a miniature helicopter was happily saving a doll. Of course fire engines were there too, fortunately the forest fire was missing.

But the ‘mother of all Presepio’s’ is in the Curral das Freiras, a valley that used to be almost closed off from the rest of Madeira. Whenever there wa a pirate raid on the city of Funchal the nuns (freiras) fled there with the church treasures because the pirates did not know the way to this valley. Now the valley plays its own role in Madeira, more about this some other time. The Presépio here, covers an entire parking garage. It is actually more like a miniature Madeira, with somewhere at the end – almost an afterthought the real Nativity scene. We always love it, and are amazed by the energy and time that many volunteers invest in it every year. Also, of course, by those installing the abundant Christmas lights. We also made a video of it. It really doesn’t come close to the real thing, but at least you get the idea.

Finally we have the church of Curral das Freiras, which of course also has its own presépio. But if you have the presépio in the parking garage next door, what can you do to be taken seriously? You do something different if not quite so large. The performances in the presépio in the church have become a moving spectacle. All existing crafts on the island are there, and everything is moving. Good thing they did not make a moving Maria giving birth. We caught this in a video as well. Of course it does absolutely no justice to the real presépio’s, but you get an impression.

Tomorrow is Epiphany. The new year is here already, celebrated with the world famous fire works, so at home, the Christmas tree will go back to the attic. But Madeira goes on christmassing for a while: here, the Christmas festivities will continue until Santo Amaro (a very sour looking saint who seems to be rather important here) on January 15th, and then they seamlessly move on to the preparations for the Carnival and then Easter and the Festa da Flor.

But we are going to get rid of the decorations, clean the room and relax for a while.


By Peter Groen

Peter was born in Amsterdam in 1949. He has a history in PR and copywriting. Now, part time resident of the Island of Madeira of over 10 years, he writes about Madeira, its culture, its overwhelming nature, its food and drink, and about everything concerning travel to and on this beautiful island.

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