There are two things the Portuguese people take very seriously: their religion, and their football (also known to us heathens in America as soccer.) Last night we experienced an excellent demonstration of this country’s second deeply held belief system, only days before the first comes to town in the form of the Pope. From an outside observer’s point of view, the timing of these two events could not be better.

As Gabe and I were making our Mother’s Day calls home last night on Skype, we started to hear horns tooting and people yelling on the streets. “Oh,” I said, “there must have been some big match on today,” but didn’t think too much of it. We’ve heard such things before, but they normally die down pretty quickly.

Not this time.

If anything, the tooting got louder and more insistent as the evening went on. Weird, I thought, and went to poke my head out the window. I was shocked when I did, for underneath the localized tooting around our house, you could hear a much deeper  layer of noise, the kind of noise that can only be achieved by a concentrated group effort. Shouting, many more horns tooting in the distance, waves of rhythmically rising and falling voices that implied chanting or singing of some kind… all combined to form a low-level cacophony of truly impressive dimensions.

Surprised, we flicked on the TV, where we found the same thing on every single one of the local Portuguese channels. One of the local Lisboan teams, Benfica, had just won the Portugal-wide league championship for the first time in five years, and the entire city had come out on the streets in spontaneous joyful celebration, all of them waving flags and decked out in Benfica colors, T-shirts or wigs or face paint.

The main shot was of the Marques de Pombal roundabout just down the Avenida da Liberdade nearby, which must have been where we could hear all the noise coming from. It was completely mobbed with people and shut down to traffic, with fans climbing up the statue in the middle to wave gigantic Benfica flags off the marble plinth. Cars were crawling through dense traffic in all directions, but the drivers they interviewed on the news seemed just as happy as the people on the streets. Many of their passengers made the most of their slow pace to jump out of the car or wave flags out of the windows, literally taking the celebrations to the streets.

It was truly impressive, and also slightly frightening for someone who loathes crowds. Gabe’s immediate response was, “Let’s go check it out!” I said, “No way, I’m not going out there. I can see it just fine on the TV.” Even on our screen, you could almost get a contact high just from watching these people’s elation. Gabe said there was also a massive firework display at midnight, which miraculously didn’t wake me up.

All I could think of was what our friend had told us at lunch about the Pope’s visit tomorrow. She said that 100,000 people were expected to show up to hear his address at the Terreiro do Paco down by the water, which has been under construction all year in anticipation of this grand event. 100,000 people. There must have been at least half that out on the streets last night, and the partying will probably just segue straight into his visit tomorrow, transitioning smoothly from one national religion to another.

Coming from as iconoclastic, quirky, and devotedly secular a place as Santa Cruz, I’m fascinated by both forms of mania, er, devotion. UC Santa Cruz doesn’t even have a football team, of the American kind anyway. Our biggest teams are water polo, tennis, and frisbee golf. So I just don’t get mass celebrations of sport victories like we saw last night, nor what happened in New Orleans when the Saints won earlier this year.

As for more traditional types of religion, we mostly let everyone do their own thing, whether it’s meditate with Buddhist monks or go to church on Sunday morning. (That said, my mom told me that when the previous Pope visited California, he filled Laguna Seca with over 250,000 people. Apparently I don’t move in the right circles.)

So seeing a celebration like we did last night was for me totally foreign, in many senses of the word, and I expect that tomorrow’s religious ceremonies will seem equally so. I am glad to be able to witness these demonstrations of devotion, and as always, I admire the Portuguese zeal and passion for life. However, I am also well pleased to be able to observe them from afar, as getting caught up in a loud, frenzied crowd — or even a quiet religious one — doesn’t really sound like my idea of fun.

More from the land of religious and sports devotion to come…