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Brazzil - Celebrations - September 2004

Can Santa's Reindeers Survive Brazil's Hot Christmas?

Even in the scorching heat of Rio's summer, Santa makes his
appearance to bring gifts to children who anticipate his arrival
as eagerly as others anywhere else in the world. However, the
traditional emphasis is still on the birth of the Christ child and the
gathering of family. Things have begun to change though.

Jennifer Grant


Picture What other types of holidays do Cariocas celebrate besides Carnaval?

There are many more government, religious, and popular holidays commemorated in Brazil than in the United States. Rio's residents love parties and the opportunity to socialize. They also still regard themselves as a Catholic country, although few people actually practice the religion.

Perhaps Americans can most relate to the `popular' holidays. Among them is the Brazilian equivalent of Valentine's Day, which is called Dia dos Namorados (Day of the Lovers). It is celebrated on June 12th instead of February 14th.

It is also interesting to note that Brazilians recognize some of the United States' holidays such as Halloween, which they call Dia das Bruxas (Day of the Witches), and celebrate their own versions of them.

Other American holidays, such as Thanksgiving (Dia de Ação de Graças), are not observed, though Cariocas are familiar with them and have given them names in Portuguese.

What are some of the government holidays and how are they celebrated?

Brazilian Independence Day, September 7, is the most distinguished national holiday. It is commemorated by a week long celebration which features parades, patriotic music, and sporting events.

The festivities commence on August 31st and culminate on the actual day of the 7th. Brazil's national anthem, "Hino Nacional Brasileiro" (Brazilian National Hymn) is played throughout the city. The country's colors of green and yellow are displayed from windows and street fixtures.

Other national holidays include Discovery Day (Dia do Descobrimento) on April 22nd and Flag Day (Dia da Bandeira) on November 19th. Though not observed by the general public, schools and military groups put on ceremonies. Business and government offices are closed.

Labor Day, on May 1st, is a day to honor blue collar and union workers. It is largely ignored by other types of employees.

Does Rio de Janeiro have its own special holidays?

January 20th, the date of de Sá's victorious attack on the French, is hallowed as a tribute to Rio's patron saint, São Sebastião (Saint Sebastian). Street festivals and church masses feature decorations colored the saint's votive shade of red.

The main event is a procession which carries the statue of São Sebastião from the church which bears his name in Barra da Tijuca crosstown to the Metropolitan Cathedral. There, it is blessed at a mass conducted by the city's archbishop.

Meanwhile, in the courtyards of African Spiritual temples, drums beat in time to the chants and dances honoring Oxossi, voodoo king of the jungle.

On March 1st, Cariocas commemorate their city hood on the anniversary of Estácio de Sá's arrival. The date is honored with a mass held at San Sebastian Church in the central district. The mayor then cuts a huge birthday cake and hands the pieces out to the guests.

Are there religious holidays other than those honoring Rio?

Being a predominately Catholic country, Easter continues to be the holiday of the greatest importance and observation. Many other festivals revolve around saints of the church.

Among the most popular are those dedicated to São João (Saint John) and several of the other Catholic saints. These all take place in June.

This has caused the series of celebrations to be known as the Festas Juninas (June Festivals). They are marked by parties which take place among relatives and friends.

Other religious holidays occur throughout the year. The church puts on a special mass for each. Families may use the occasion for hosting a social gathering.

Is the Easter Bunny welcome in Rio?

The Easter Bunny does drop off his chocolate candy bunnies and eggs at the homes of Carioca children. However, the traditional emphasis remains upon the death and resurrection of Christ. The observance commences with Palm Sunday and continues through Easter day.

Various churches host a variety of practices. These include religious processions, hangings of effigies of Judas on Good Friday, and meatless Saturday night dinners. Rio families attend mass or religious services on Easter morning. They then spend the rest of the day together.

Does Santa still come when it's ninety degrees?

Yes, even in the scorching heat of Rio's summer, Santa makes his appearance to bring gifts to children who anticipate his arrival as eagerly as others anywhere else in the world. However, the traditional emphasis is still on the birth of the Christ child and the gathering of family. It is only in recent years that this has slowly begun to change.

How long is the Carioca Christmas season?

The season begins in mid December in anticipation of the Christ child. It continues on through January 6th, the day which marks the visit of the Magi.

How is it celebrated?

Nativity scenes (presépios) are put up in public places and private homes. In addition to, or where nativity scenes are absent, trees, commonly made from synthetic materials, are used to decorate.

This is not looked upon as `cheap', since the evergreens used in homes in the United States are not naturally available to Rio's residents, nor would they survive for long in summer temperatures.

Natal (Christmas) is a family holiday which is celebrated both at church and within the home. On Véspera de Natal (Christmas Eve) families attend midnight mass together. Traditionally, they then return home, eat a poultry dinner, and follow up by opening gifts. Christmas Day is usually spent with the family. Friends are welcome to drop by.

Why do some Rio residents consider New Year's Eve a religious holiday?

When the Portuguese captured and imported African people to be used as slaves, many of their religious beliefs and rituals found their way into the Brazilian secular culture.

One of these ceremonies is the festival of Iemanjá, goddess of the sea, which is held on New Year's Eve (Révéillon). Millions of people from all religions dress in white and gather on Rio's beaches holding boats made from paper containing a candle.

Around 10pm, they begin to decorate. Candles, flowers and lace tablecloths covered with offerings of necklaces, hair accessories, and make-up are spread on the sand.

At midnight, the boats are launched, with the candle lit, in hope that the tiny ships will make their way across the waves to Iemanjá. People believe that when a boat reaches her, she will grant the wish represented by the candle.

Besides the ceremony dedicated to the African goddess, people play samba and dance in the streets. Fireworks and sirens go off at midnight as the paper boats are being launched from the shore. Bells ring and drums bang announcing their dispatch.

Some people jump over seven waves, or stuff three pomegranate seeds in their pockets, in order to bring good luck. The party continues both on the beach, and in the streets, until the celebrants welcome the rising of the sun. Its growing light sends them slipping away to sleep.

Is there a special holiday for children as well as those for their parents?

Brazilians also grace mothers and fathers with a special day in their honor. But, unlike the United States, there is also a holiday set aside for children. Its original name was Cosme e Damião, but it is now more commonly called Dia das Crianças (Children's Day) and occurs during September or October.

Parents and relatives give gifts and candy to children within their own families and to those of friends and acquaintances. Charitable organizations distribute treats to the children whose families do not have enough money for their own.

Do Cariocas have birthday parties?

Cariocas are just as big on celebrating birthdays as Americans are. Children's birthdays feature a cake with candles, soft drinks, toys, party-blowers, and paper decorations which match the chosen theme of the party.

One room is set up for the party. A theme tablecloth covers the one table. Other theme decorations are placed on top of the table and hung on the walls. The room looks like one has stepped into a fantasy world.

Finger snack type foods and sweets are set out on the table so that the company can help themselves. If the family is wealthy, the maid may also circulate about the room with the food on a tray.

The focus of the child's party is on the guests and the cake rather than entertainment or activity. Family members, neighbors, and friends from the child's school are all invited. They socialize and enjoy each other's company by dancing, singing, and playing games.

When the cake is brought out, a special Portuguese verse is sung to the same tune as the American `Happy Birthday' while everyone claps their hands. Next, candles are blown out, and the cake is cut.

Afterwards, everyone hugs the birthday child and crowds around to watch him or her open their gifts. Then the family puts the presents together in one location, usually the child's room, where the guests will go to view them again prior to leaving.

On her fifteenth birthday, a girl celebrates her `coming of age'. This is also the occasion when an upper or middle class girl makes her debut in society. A large celebration is held at a club, yard, or in another large space appropriate for holding social gatherings.

Around or about midnight, the birthday girl dances with her father and is then turned over to her date. While dancing together, they are accompanied by fifteen other couples comprised of friends or relatives. If they are following the old tradition, the girls dress in white and hold candles.

There are also parties on adults' birthdays. Gifts are given and opened. Everyone helps themselves to large servings of home-cooked food. The cake may be decorated without the candles. Cutting the cake is the climax of the party. It may then be eaten or shared with family and friends later.

The text above was excerpted from Rio de Janeiro: The City, the Life, and the Kids, a work aimed at grades 5 through high school level. The author, Jennifer Grant, is currently seeking a publisher for this book. Comments and contacts in English and Portuguese are welcome at sjennig@yahoo.com. Please reference the book title or Brazzil in subject line.
Grant wishes to thank Jazon da Silva Santos for his comments and editing work on some of the chapters contained in the book. She has authored previous articles in Brazzil magazine, as well as an article on the children in the favelas for Faces Magazine, which is used in United States schools.
Her interests include promoting awareness of the needs of the favelados and the organizations and individuals which are willing to help them through both the written word and by making presentations at churches and schools.

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