The Portuguese village of Vale do Salgueiro has a rather unusual way of celebrating Epiphany, as children, even those as young as 5, are allowed by their parents to smoke cigarettes.
Although outsiders may find the practice disturbing, considering the numerous laws around the world designed to discourage cigarette smoking, locals say that the act of allowing children to smoke on the last few days of the Christmas season has been a tradition passed down for centuries. Still, the Daily Mail noted that it isn’t sure what the practice represents, or why parents have no problem letting their young children smoke cigarettes to celebrate Epiphany.
Vale do Sagueiro’s Epiphany celebrations last for two days, starting on Friday and ending with mass on Saturday, the Daily Mail explained. Most of the activities, such as dancing around bonfires and the election of a “king” who gives out snacks and wine to revelers, are relatively harmless. But the one controversial practice is the act of letting children smoke on those two days, as Portugal’s legal age for buying tobacco products is 18, and authorities have reportedly taken a hands-off approach with regards to the custom.
Thirty-five-year-old coffee shop owner Guilhermina Mateus was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that she lets her daughter smoke cigarettes as it’s part of tradition. She added that children only smoke as part of her village’s Epiphany celebrations, and don’t ask for cigarettes for the rest of the year.
“I can’t explain why. I don’t see any harm in that because [the children] don’t really smoke, they inhale and immediately exhale, of course.”
Speaking to Sky News, village parish president Carlos Cadavez defended the tradition, admitting that his 10-year-old daughter would smoke as many as two to three packs of cigarettes during the two-day festivities. He added that this was not an unusual figure among children in the village.
“Only those who live and are raised here can truly understand the meaning of this tradition,” said Cadavez.
Author Jose Ribeirinha, who published a book about Vale do Salgueiro’s Epiphany traditions, told the Daily Mail that the roots of the controversial tradition are a mystery. He speculated, however, that the act is a symbolism of the “rebirth of nature and human life,” and a continuation of traditions in the region that date back to pagan times. According to Ribeirinha, the winter solstice has typically been a time when villagers would do things that they don’t usually do any other time of the year, which could explain why children are allowed to smoke on Epiphany.
Ribeirinha also suggested that geography could have played a part in keeping the custom going in modern times, as Vale do Salgueiro is a remote village located about 280 miles (450 kilometers) northeast of Lisbon, with the surrounding Tras os Montes region being the furthest away from the Portuguese capital.
Like many other parts of the world, Portugal has instituted anti-smoking reforms in recent years, including a partial ban on indoor smoking. But while the above reports suggest that authorities do not interfere in Vale do Salguerio’s unconventional tradition, Sky News noted that the village’s rate of adult smoking is not higher than the rates in other villages.