On December 16th, at 5 a.m., the alarm clock rings. The day before, we set the meeting point at the church’s front door. Christmas begins, or the “Festa”, as it’s mostly known on Madeira island. We leave the house, at dawn, and the morning routine of this season begins – that of the Childbirth Masses.
Childbirth Masses usually begin between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. around the island. In some parishes, groups of people go from home to home, gathering more and more people, who walk together to the church. They joyfully party along the way with songs accompanied by musical instruments. From home, they bring the typical molasses cakes (bolos de mel), the homemade liqueurs (of tangerine, of anise…) and musical instruments, such as the harmonica.
We enter the church (already crowded) and attend Mass. We whisper good morning to friends and family with a smile that reflects happy memories and the Madeiran pride of fulfilling this tradition – that of attending the Childbirth Masses. They symbolize devotion to the expectant Virgin Mother. There are nine masses representing Mary’s nine months of pregnancy. We listen to songs and live moments of reflection and unity. On December 24th, the Midnight Mass (Missa do Galo) celebrates, at last, the birth of Jesus.
The Childbirth Mass usually ends with the song whose chorus everyone knows: “Virgin of Childbirth, O Mary, Lady of the Conception, give us happy feasts, peace and salvation …”.
In the churchyard, the conviviality continues until the sun rises. The accordion, the local ukelele or “braguinha”, the harmonica, the bells and the people Madeiran people and visitors – join in a great cheerful circle where everyone participates in the celebrations. Cakes, liqueurs, ponchas and biscuits are shared. Between conversations and songs, people eat pork sandwiches (carne de vinho e alhos) chicken soup and hot cocoa. In the middle of that hustle and bustle, Christmas carols are sung, hugs and “happy holidays” wishes are shared. Before leaving, we must visit the Nativity scene (Lapinha) that is inside the church, a complete scene, only missing the Baby Jesus that arrives in the night of December 24th.