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Epiphany in Portugal: pipes, drums — and cigarettes for the kids

Bagpipes, drums — and kids smoking cigarettes: in this Portuguese village, locals celebrate the Christian festival of Epiphany in a fashion that raises eyebrows elsewhere.

People in the village of Vale de Salgueiro, which lies in a celtic region in the northeast of the country, have been celebrating the festival like this for generations.

Parents encourage their children, some as young as five-years-old, to light up during the two days of the holiday, a tradition whose origins are not entirely clear.

“We don’t know when or how this tradition got started,” said village mayor Carlos Cadavez. “But we have a resident aged 101 years who says it was already like that at the time of her parents.

“We think that, at the beginning it was linked to celebrating the emancipation of boys as they approached adolescence,” he added.

Cadavez, a 45-year-old postman, himself allowed his daughter to smoke during the festival from the time she was nine.

Local priest Julio Gomes said there were several religious festivals after Christmas in this region devoted to Saint Etienne and centre around young people.

The blending of Catholic and pagan rites was perfectly normal here, said the 35-year-old priest, even if he found the practice of getting children to smoke “a little odd”.

“The people of the village know that tobacco is bad for your health,” said Jose Ribeirinha, who has written a book about the tradition.

“It’s just a rite of passage,” said the journalist, whose own father hailed from the village.

For a good 15 years now, the local tradition has regularly generated controversy in the local media, but locals are united in rejecting the judgment of the outside world.

This year the mayor of Mirandela, the regional capital, travelled to the village in a vain attempt to persuade local kids to give that part of the festivities a miss.

But six-year-told Rui and his cousin Eduarda, 10, could hardly wait for the piper to finish playing before they lit up the cigarettes their parents had given them.

“Me too, I started at their age,” said Eduarda, Isabel Hermenegildo’s mother. “Every year I smoke on January 5 and 6, but never the rest of the year.” Eduarda, she said, had been following the tradition since the age of five.

“That’s how it is, that is the tradition here, that’s how it’s always been,” said the 45-year-old teacher, who grew up in this village of 200 inhabitants.

The villagers talked, danced, drank — and smoked — until the small hours of Sunday morning.