The language of flowers – the meaning of a carnation

Friday, April 25, 2014, 20:54

The man who caught my eye was elegant as only lean, middle-aged men with iron grey hair can be. He was wearing a dapper, dark suit with a carnation in his buttonhole and he carried another in his hand. With a sketchy bow, he presented the carnation to a smartly dressed lady seated at the table next to mine. It seemed a scene from a world now lost in time.

In the distance I saw a small lorry turn up with sections of a dance floor and supports to raise it above the level of the crowds, which were now beginning to gather in the square. Workmen bolted them together with commendable rapidity. And then came a troupe of musicians and dancers.

male dancer

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Under a cerulean sky, with the grey stone backdrop of the Old Town Hall in the central square of the World Heritage City of Guimarães, an accordion player struck up a folk tune. You can see him in the background on the left. Other musicians strummed guitars, clicked castanets or rang clusters of little bells and, to my delight, one shook up and down the strange, clattery, wooden instrument known as the 'tréculas''. (You can see one in front of the brown accordion on the left hand side in the picture below.)

Musical instruments & treculas

A singer took up the refrain. To our ears the folklore songs of the far north of Portugal can sound harsh. However, we need to remember that these are work-a-day songs and dances with names such 'Canas Verdes' – Green Reeds. Though they lack the melodic quality of ballads and love songs, we must bear in mind that an untrained voice needs to rise above the sound of the accordion, guitars and bells as well as the clacking of the dancers' heels.

Some constants of Portuguese folk dances are, for women, scarves, shawls, embroidered aprons over wide skirts plumped out with petticoats, thick white stockings held up by garters just above the knee, and oodles of gold jewellery with heavy, often filigree, pendants.

Female dancer

For men it is de rigueur to wear a waistcoat – vest if you are American - and a broad-brimmed hat, though occasionally a wide sash may replace the waistcoat.

Young male dancer

And so in Guimarães on that warm, sunny day the dancers raised their arms and began to side step, one way and then the other, stamping the wooden boards with loose, slip-on, heeled shoes. It is always beyond me how they manage not to trip over and break a leg but they don't. Then the women began to whirl and their skirts billowed out, displaying what must once, when these traditions were in their infancy, have been a rare, titillating glimpse of bare thigh above the white stockings. The many gold chains and pendants glinted gaily in the sun.


Folklore groups, 'ranchos folclόricos', are still found all over Portugal. Whenever there is a festival, they come out to entertain the crowds and are deeply appreciated.

So what was the reason for the display we saw a few years ago? The carnations are the clue. We were on holiday and, as so often happens, we had lost track of time. We hadn't realised that it was April 25th, Freedom Day, the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, so called because when the armed forces overthrew the dictatorship, the people placed carnations in the muzzles of the guns.

What stood out to me was that only the middle-aged and old carried carnations on this occasion, though some of the men in the folklore group had carnations tucked into their hatbands. Perhaps the revolution doesn't mean much to the young who have never known Portugal to be anything but free. And yet in Britain, when I, along with millions of others, remember the dead of the two world wars on Armistice Day, I think we should always buy and wear a poppy "lest we forget". Similarly, I should like to see everyone in Portugal wearing a carnation on the 25th April in respect for those who gave them their freedom in 1974.

Do you have any Freedom Day stories?  Do let us know if you have.  (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language.  You don't have write in English.  O que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

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