Traditions and myths of Beira Baixa Region

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Understanding the personality and way of life of the people around us and the localities we are part of, requires knowing a little about their ancestral past and their traditions and myths that have shaped their personality and way of life. Learning about how they were raised, and the traditions of their ancestors is a way to better understand the region and, therefore, achieve better integration. Let’s discover a small part of the Traditions and myths of the Beira Baixa region?

The people of Beira Baixa were compelled to rely on empirical knowledge due to their historical isolation from cultural influences, scientific knowledge, and the education system itself. This traditional wisdom, wrapped in a religiosity of unclear contours, gave rise to myths and rituals that still endure and are cherished by people who, at first glance, one might assume do not hold such beliefs.

Now, let’s explore some of the Rites, Myths, and Traditions of the Beira Baixa region, particularly related to the formation of a family!

The Choice of the Bride

Discovering a woman’s character based on certain characteristics of her appearance was something the people from Beira Baixa excelled at. In the Beira Baixa region, we find the following proverbs widely spread:

  • Mark on the face, a bold woman;
  • Mark on the neck, a woman filled with sorrow;
  • Mark on the arm, a resourceful woman;
  • Beautiful woman, either crazy or presumptuous;
  • A man who speaks like a woman, not even the devil wants her;
  • A silent man and a bearded woman, don’t let them stay in your house;
  • Woman with an upturned nose, she’s led by the devil;
  • Thin woman without hunger, stay away from her, she’ll devour you;
  • Woman as small as a sardine, that’s the one you want;
  • Woman like a chick, small enough to fit in a sleeve;
  • The nightingale never tires of singing, nor does a woman of talking;
  • Pig at one year, goat at one month, and a woman at twenty-three;
  • Wine, women, and tobacco weaken a man.
Old picture of Castelo Branco, capital of Beira Baixa
Castelo Branco, circa 1940

Bachelor Party 

Throughout the ages, in these small villages, everyone shared each other’s joys and sorrows. If a tragedy struck a family, the entire village would mourn together. A happy event, such as a wedding, for example, it was cause for the entire village to celebrate.

If any of the young people decided to marry in a distant town, on the eve of the wedding, it was customary to make a visit to all the houses in their village before departing. During this visit, the groom or bride was accompanied by a family member who helped carry a large basket filled with wheat bread. At each house they visited, the groom or bride would leave a loaf of bread and receive a “wedding gift” in return. Typically, it would be a plate, utensils, a napkin, and in wealthier homes, sometimes even a monetary offering, although at that time it would not exceed ten tostões (cents).

From their own families, the bride and groom would receive other gifts according to each person’s means: a linen sheet, a blanket, a linen towel, and so on. Often, wedding guests would only present gifts to the parents of the couple: goats, chickens, eggs, groceries, wine. It was a way to assist them, as the wedding feast was always held at home.

From their own families, the bride and groom would receive other gifts according to each person’s means: a linen sheet, a blanket, a linen towel, and so on. Often, wedding guests would only present gifts to the parents of the couple: goats, chickens, eggs, groceries, wine.

The wedding traditions

On the wedding day, the groom would always go to the bride’s house to fetch her, whether they were from the same locality or different ones. In both cases, all the transportation was done on foot. The groom, accompanied by his guests, would make his way to the bride’s house, and they would all proceed in a procession to the church. During this procession (sometimes covering long distances), there would always be someone carrying a jug of wine and a basket of pastries or cakes, which were offered to everyone they encountered along the way. Some took advantage of this opportunity and intentionally passed by the route where they knew the wedding procession would pass, in order to enjoy these treats!

When they arrived at the house where the wedding feast would be held and where the newlyweds would live, the homeowners would already be at the door to receive the couple. Two cushions would be placed on the floor, where the bride and groom would kneel, asking for their parents’ blessing and permission to enter. After the banquet, in the evening, it was customary for the groom (whether in his own hometown or the bride’s) to call upon all the men in the village to gather together, offering food and drink at his home. It was said that many people would save their appetite during the day to indulge themselves during the night, at the celebration of the newlyweds!

The pregnancy traditions

Marriage quickly resulted in pregnancy. On one hand, it was necessary to have many children to help with work as soon as possible. On the other hand, the complete lack of knowledge about contraceptive methods led to the birth of a large family. The people also had their own wisdom about pregnancy and had recipes for pregnant women. Let’s know some myths and traditions of the Beira Baixa region related with pregnancy:

The use of keys:

  • Carrying keys at the waist brings bad luck (Montes da Senhora);
  • Babies can be born with keys “engraved” (marked) or with a large mark on their bodies if their mothers carry keys at the waist. (Póvoa Rio de Moinhos);
  • Carrying the key in the pocket marks the baby (Castelo Branco);
  • If a pregnant woman carries a key in her pocket, the baby is born with a cleft lip (Marvão);
  • Pregnant women couldn’t carry keys, matchboxes, or pins, so that the baby wouldn’t be born with marks (several parishes).

The use of necklaces

  • Wear necklaces, as the child may be born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their leg (Montes da Senhora);
  • Wear earrings (same); Wear clothes with buttons and buckles (Castelo Branco);
  • Wear tight underwear to avoid discomforting the baby (Caféde);
  • Wear black clothes, as the child may be born sad (Alcains);
  • Perm the hair (Escalos de Cima);
  • Wear a rosary or any necklace so that the baby is not born with marks on their back (Marvão);
  • Carry a handkerchief so that the child is not born mute (Marvão).

The pregnant woman’s diet

Should not: 

  • Eating hare, as the baby may sleep with eyes open (Castelo Branco);
  • Eating lettuce (Castelo Branco);
  • Stopping eating what she craves to “fulfill cravings,” otherwise, the child will be born with an open mouth (various towns);
  • Eating Galician olives, as babies end up with a stained face. If the baby is born like that, the mother should rub a diaper soaked in urine on the baby’s face to make the stains disappear (Caféde).

Should:

  • Drinking a glass of brandy every morning for the children to be born fairer (Póvoa de Rio de Moinhos);
  • During the final stages of pregnancy, drinking wine and eating dry codfish to have plenty of milk for breastfeeding the baby, but avoiding coffee so that the child is not born nervous (Caféde).

The birth myths

When children were born, women would eat wheat bread, chicken broth, egg soups, eggnog, golden slices (“fatias paridas”), and drink wine or eat “tired horse soups” (“sopas de vinho”) to strengthen themselves. They were not allowed to eat vegetables or fruit because it was believed to be harmful. Women would stay at home for a month after childbirth, hardly leaving the bed.

Other curious beliefs:

  • It was customary to tie a scarf around the head of a newborn to ensure a well-shaped head;
  • Pacifiers did not exist. Therefore, when children cried, a “sugar doll” was made: a little sugar was placed inside a piece of cloth, tied with a string, moistened with water, and given to the baby to suck on;
  • Mothers did not cut the baby’s nails with scissors because it was believed to “delay their speech.” It was the godmother who would cut the nails with her teeth (Abitureira, Oleiros);
  • If a girl is born feet first, she will never be able to become a mother (Various towns);
  • If a baby is born on a Sunday, they will become a priest or a nun; on Monday, a teacher or a doctor; on Wednesday, a farm laborer or a farmer; on Thursday, a blacksmith or a seamstress. It is not considered good for babies to be born on Tuesday or Friday as those are considered witches’ days (Marvão);
  • After birth, to prevent the baby from being cursed, the mother would make a small pouch with three grains of salt, three crumbs of bread, and the umbilical cord. The pouch would be placed in the baby’s underwear. (Póvoa de Rio de Moinhos).

This is a brief summary of the Myths, and Traditions of the Beira Baixa region. Nowadays, few or even none truly believe in and practice these rituals and legends. However, they are a valuable social testimony of the region, which helps to understand the people of Beira Baixa and the isolation that this region experienced until a few decades ago. They also help to shed light on the people and customs of Beira Baixa.

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