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How the Carnation Became the Symbol of Portugal's Revolution

The peaceful nature of Portugal's 1974 revolution is a source of national pride and a story that's become symbolized by the red carnation. How so? It all starts with a lady named Celeste.

Portuguese soldiers stand with carnations in their rifles. Image laid over a dark green background with a tile design

Dia 25 de Abril: The Day that Portugal's Dictatorship Ended

On April 25, 1974, a military coup overthrew the long-lasting, authoritarian Estado Novo regime established by fascist leader, António de Oliveira Salazar.

Portugal's dictatorship was less violent than the more widely known fascist dictatorships of Francisco Franco (Spain) or Benito Mussolini (Italy). But it was longer (48 years) and oppressive nonetheless — much of the country lived in poverty and the government could be aggressive through acts taken out by PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), the "secret" political police. At times, PIDE was known to torture, imprison, or even kill those who were opponents of Salazar's regime.

After Salazar suffered a stroke in 1968, power transferred to Marcelo Caetano. However, Caetano struggled to maintain the same grasp over Portugal that Salazar had. He allowed for greater political tolerance and freedom of the press, which gave opponents a greater public voice. And there was growing discontent among the military and youth over the ongoing Portuguese Colonial War during which Portugal was trying to overcome various movements for independence in its African colonies.

The song that signaled a revolution. It starts about 40 seconds into the video.

Eventually, a coup was organized by the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas, MFA), comprised of military officers who opposed the regime and the Portuguese Colonial War.

The coup had two secret signals. The first signaled the coup to begin — the signal was the airing of Paulo de Carvalho's song, "E Depois do Adeus (And After Goodbye)," also Portugal's entry in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. The second signal aired almost one and a half hours later at 12:20 am on April 25 — a radio station played a song by banned political folk singer, Zeca Afonso, called "Grândola, Vila Morena." This signal alerted MFA rebels to take over strategic points of power in the country.

Within six hours, Caetano and the Portuguese government conceded. After news spread of the successful overthrow of the government, many Portuguese people took to the streets to celebrate with the soldiers. And so the story of Celeste de Caeiros and her carnations begins.

How Celeste dos Cravos and Her Carnations Became the Symbol of Peaceful Resistance

If you're well versed in Portuguese history, you know that this revolution is popularly called the Carnation Revolution. That's because immediately after the coup, Portuguese soldiers marched with red carnations in the barrels of their guns, seemingly making a statement about their resistance to shoot their guns. But what if we told you that this is just lore? Well...kind of. Let's just say, that's not the whole story.

Strolling into a Revolution

On the morning of April 25, 1974, Celeste Caeiros was walking through the streets of Lisbon with an armful of carnations. They were leftover from a work celebration that had been canceled that day. Serendipitously you might say, she walked straight into Portuguese soldiers and tanks making their way to the government building that housed the ruling leader, Marcelo Caetano.

Curiosity got the best of Celeste and she asked a soldier what they were doing. After politely responding, he asked her if she had a cigarette. She didn’t. Instead, she offered him a red carnation. He accepted and placed it into the barrel of his gun. She offered another solider a carnation and then another. Before she knew it, everyone started looking for carnations and doing the same.

Photographs captured the occasion — and in that moment, unbeknownst to her, she became Celeste dos Cravos (cravos means carnations in Portuguese). Just like that, images of soldiers marching with carnations in their guns became immortalized and the carnation became the symbol of Portugal's revolution — one of the most peaceful in history as almost no shots were fired.

Watch Celeste dos Cravos tell her story on RTP:

Dia de Liberdade: Portugal's Day of Freedom and Liberation

Today, the revolution is more popularly referred to as the Carnation Revolution and is commemorated on the 25th of April — a national holiday in Portugal called Dia de Liberdade (Freedom Day). In honor of the revolution, Lisbon’s iconic suspension bridge (you know the one, it looks just like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridget) was named Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25 Bridge).

Although the Carnation Revolution was mostly peaceful and successfully brought an end to an oppressive regime, the transition to a new government was not swift. Over time though, the aftermath of the revolution re-introduced democracy to Portugal and opened the door for independence in Portugal’s colonies.

After establishing a functioning democracy, in 1986 Portugal entered Europe's greatest against allyship for peace and democracy, the European Union. And so far, peace has endured in Portugal, civil liberties have flourished, and economic opportunity has grown tremendously. Today, Portugal ranks highly in Global Freedom with a score of 95 out of 100.


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