Parents encouraging their children, some as young as 5, to smoke cigarettes, have attracted an outcry from outsiders.
The Epiphany celebrations in the Portuguese village of Vale de Salgueiro feature a tradition that each year causes rights groups to protest.
Locals say the practice has been passed down for centuries as part of a celebration of life tied to the Christian Epiphany and the winter solstice.
However, nobody is sure what it symbolises or exactly why parents buy the packs of cigarettes for their children. They actually encourage their children to take part.
The two-day celebrations start on 12 January and end the next day with a Mass. The festivities include dancing around bonfires, a piper playing music and an elected “king” who distributes plentiful wine and snacks.
The legal age to purchase tobacco in Portugal is 18, but nothing prohibits parents from giving kids cigarettes. Portuguese authorities do not intervene to stop the practice.
‘I don’t see any harm’
Guillermina Mateus, a 35-year-old coffee shop owner, mentions the custom as the reason why she gives her daughter cigarettes.
“I can’t explain why. I don’t see any harm in that because they don’t really smoke, they inhale and immediately exhale, of course,” Mateus said. “They never ask for cigarettes again”.
Jose Ribeirinha, a writer who has published a book on the Vale do Salgueiro festivities, said the roots of the tradition are unknown. However, they may have to do with celebrating the rebirth of nature and human life.
He said the village is in a region that adheres to many traditions dating back to pagan times.
He added that since Roman times, during the winter solstice period, villagers do things that are out of the norm.
Ribeirinha also believes the relative seclusion of the remote village – 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon – has helped keep the tradition alive.
He said that the surrounding Tras os Montes region “has always been the furthest from Lisbon, the most ‘forgotten one.’”
Portugal, like many other European countries, has taken steps to reduce smoking, including a partial ban on smoking indoors.