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Thanks to Josef Butler for another great write up for my blog, sharing his experience of his first New Year in Madeira.

Why is New Year’s Eve such a big deal in Madeira?

Aside from preening athletes and its water irrigation system, most foreigner’s knowledge of Madeira relates to its extravagant and well attended New Year celebrations. Having spent the holidays on the island for my first time this year, it lives up to its reputation. Throughout the 31st of December Funchal’s shoreline was more than a little reminiscent of the seas around Cuba in the early 1960s, with tens of monolithic cruise ships doing their best to blot out the winter sun.

The investment Madeira makes in terms of New Year celebrations is significant; in 2016 the island’s government spent €3.2 million in total, with €800,000 going towards the eye-straining eight-minute firework extravaganza. In the interest of international comparison, the firework display in London the previous year cost only twice as much at £1.8 million, despite the UK’s capital being home to over thirty times more people than the entire island of Madeira. So why does this small Atlantic outpost devote so much energy and finance to celebrate the coming of the New Year?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is rooted in Madeira’s social and religious history. Before globalised tourism heralded New Year’s Eve’s monopoly over the holiday season, Christmas was the most important day in the calendar for most Madeirans. As with most religious holidays Christmas represented a rare time of plenty for the poor, and in this regard Madeira was well supplied. The emergence of a middle class was a fairly recent phenomenon in Madeira, only appearing in earnest after the fall of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1974. Up until that point the island’s class system was cleaved in two, between the moneyed, urbanised aristocrats and the illiterate peasants of the countryside, referred to as vilãos. For these peasants the Christmas period was cherished as a time for renewal and feasting. It was common for families to use this time to repair and redecorate their homes and indulge in banquets, typically centred around pork or chicken.

The Catholic traditions that underpinned the Madeiran Christmas allowed these historical practices to merge into the secular New Year seamlessly. Unlike in Britain, where you would be frowned upon for leaving your tree and decorations up into the New Year, the holiday season in Portugal runs deep into January. Madeiran Christmas begins in earnest on the 15th of December with the first of the Childbirth Masses, an antithetical blending of religious worship and all-night binges on poncha and wine. The Christmas period will typically last until January 6th, the Dia dos Reis (kings day), a celebration of the three kings who visited Jesus with gifts. The scale and length of these celebrations ensure that there is still a festive mood on the island during New Year’s Eve.

During this roughly three-week period there are many traditional events that are of great significance to many Madeirans, from religious feasts and masses to more drunken affairs such as the Market Night at Funchal’s Mercado do Levadeiros on the 23rd of December. Many of these events existed historically in mainland Portugal, although they have changed over time or disappeared altogether. They are still observed in Madeira, possibly due to the island’s relative isolation, but more likely as a result of the aforementioned significance of the season to the island; the greater access of Portuguese colonies and neighbouring states has always ensured the mainland a degree of prosperity not enjoyed by most Madeirans, further enhancing the importance of Christmas as a time of abundance.

Just as the fall of the dictatorship caused great social and economic upheaval in Portugal, it also opened the doors of modern globalisation. This was of particular significance to Madeira, which despite having been a popular tourist destination for centuries had long been isolated by the Portuguese government, to the point that it took several days for the local administration to be made aware of the changes in the mainland. By the late 20th century the social importance of New Year’s Eve had risen internationally, culminating in the apocalyptic firework displays that ushered in the millennium. This aligning of social trends presented an opportunity for Madeira to further increase its tourism sector.

While the holiday season has always been of great significance to Madeirans, it has now become synonymous with the island. The yearly multi-million investment in the celebration may seem extravagant for an island with a population around the same size as Milton Keynes, but the observable financial benefits of international tourism arguably justifies the significant outlay on fireworks and Christmas lights, even when many of the islands inhabitants still live in relative poverty. In addition to this, the joy (or distraction, depending on your point of view) presented by the festivities is in keeping with the long-held Christmas traditions of Madeira.

About the Author

Josef Butler is a tour guide and editor working in Funchal. For more information on tour guides visit madeiranheritage.pt or call +351291705060.