A fuzzy aura surrounds Baby Jesus: not so much halo, more white angora. He and Joseph have been knitted from assorted scraps of 3-ply and are roughly twice the size of Mary, a Barbie-like figure swathed in silver tinsel. All three, however, are dwarfed by the bizarre centrepiece of this Nativity, a plastic pig carcass, suspended from a frame, belly slit open, innards picked out in sickly shades of grey and purple.
The significance of this incongruous addition to the Bethlehem tableau, which stands outside a chapel glinting with gold plated carvings, does not become apparent until the following day. We’re in the little seaside town of Camara de Lobos, its most famous visitor one Winston Churchill, who came to relax in the Madeiran sunshine and paint. When we call into one of the bars to sample the local ‘poncha’ a concoction of lemon juice, honey and sugarcane spirit, we are cajoled into buying a fading postcard of the great man. He is photographed hunched over an easel, the cliffs of nearby Cabo Giroa, reputedly the highest in Europe, awaiting his brush stroke.
We wander down to the harbour where gaudy boats are hung with the bleached rags of drying fish. A hand written poster advertises the forthcoming fishermen’s brass band concert. (Bring your own chair). Like everywhere else on Madeira, Christmas celebrations begin here on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and seem to us a refreshingly homespun antidote to the UK’s commercialised Yuletide frenzy. Even in the capital, Funchal, where we now head for the evening, there are no raucous posses of drunken Santas; no Slade-n-Cliff belching from shops bloated with feverish gift-seekers. Instead, smartly dressed grandparents, wide-eyed toddlers and every age in between stroll along fairy-lit, tree lined avenues past displays of the biggest poinsettias I’ve ever seen. Most wear some item of clothing in matching bright red, the national colour. Chocolate thimbleful of ‘ginga’ and crumbly ‘Pastéis de Nata’ in hand, we pause to listen to a teenage choir segue seamlessly between Portuguese, English and French, ‘Silent Night, toute est calme...’
The next morning, we take a Jeep ride up vertiginous roads into the densely-wooded interior, to walk one of the many levadas – paths that follow the water channels constructed centuries ago to, distribute water from the rainfall -heavy regions in the north to the sun parched south. Surrounding us, aromatic eucalyptus trees; beyond them, curved terraces of vines and bananas. Every now and then a gleam of red tamarind or flash of wild lily pierces the verdant canopy.
I am revelling in the peace of this high trail when an unearthly shrieking cuts through the silence. Echoing round the deep valley, it’s difficult to pinpoint its source. Then, the levada snakes around a corner; a clutch of stone dwellings clings to the hillside and at the open doorway of one, I’m confronted by a huge, swinging, just-slaughtered pig. Blood is still running across the cobbled lane, swept vigorously into the gutter by two welly-clad children. A group of men are busily ‘unpacking’ the innards. When they see us they beckon us over. I follow the gist, that we are just in time to join them in a drink to celebrate this fine beast’s readiness for the approaching feast.
Do I imagine the metallic smell of blood that seems to cling to my glass of red wine? Feigning sudden interest in a patch of agapanthus, I squat by the roadside and tip mine discreetly into the soil, though the neatly coiled intestines I briefly glimpsed remains disconcertingly fixed on my retina. Henrique, our guide and driver, downs his in a single gulp and joins the conversation.
‘Virtually every farming family on the island rears a pig,’ he translates. ‘They’ll roast it for Christmas and use every bit of the animal during the remainder of the year. The creatures’, he assures us, ‘have a happy, healthy life as part of the family, right up until the end and the children look forward to the arrival of a new piglet to care for in January’.
The boy is now chasing his sister, swirling above his head what I recognise with some alarm to be the still-bloodied pig tale, as she shrieks in mock horror. No need to call in the grief counsellor just yet, then.
We leave the men to their slippery disassembly line and head out to rejoin the levada. Further along the road, outside a tiny poncha bar, its floor littered with discarded peanut shells, an old lady sits with a tray of home-made decorations for sale. It would be impolite to pass without buying. Forgoing the opportunity to immortalise the porcine ritual in hand stitched felt, I select a crocheted Wise Man and camel. Feliz navidad!