Friday, December 6, 2013

Holiday Series Day 6: Feliz Natal!

Holiday Series Day 6: Feliz Natal in Brazil!

Ah Brazil, the land beyond the ocean. With its white sand beaches, flourishing economy and flamboyant people, it should come as no surprise that Brazilians really know how to celebrate the holiday season. Since I have yet to personally experience the splendor of Brazil in full holiday swing, I turned to my friend and Brazilian native, Manuela, for insight into her culture's holiday traditions. We were study abroad buddies together in the Netherlands, so it was quite interesting to hear how she described Brazilian festivities as compared to Holland. Here are some items that she thought imperative to share as well as a few tidbits I picked up from everyone's favorite resource, the world wide web. 

With a population that is majority Christian, it’s not really shocking that their main celebration is Christmas. Keep in mind, however, that a Brazilian Christmas is quite different than her European forebears and northern cousins. Christmas day for Brazil falls in the heat of summer, giving off a feeling of warmth, relaxation and joy. When asked to compare her experience in Holland to her Christmas’ at home, she said the greatest difference was the weather. Manuela said, "During the winter, under the Dutch snows, I believe there is a much more cozy feeling for the holiday, while here in Brazil it is more relaxed." She also commented that it is quite normal for them to spend the day sitting on the beach, and drinking cold beer.

A fresh Brazilian beer on the beach

Some traditions are quite familiar to our own. For example, the nativity is a central part of Brazilian Christmas as well. They create a nativity scene or Presépio. The word origins from the word "presepium" which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presépio was introduced in the 17th century, in the city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco by a Franciscan friar named Gaspar de Santo Agostinho. Nowadays presépios are set up in December and displayed in churches, homes, and stores. 
 They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and forms.

Oversized Presepio (nativity) in Brazil

Another custom similar to our own festivities is that of Papai Noel or Father Noel the gift-bringer. According to the legends, he currently resides in Greenland. Apparently his Santa-type character was imported from North America in the 50's and it only gained popularity due to the commercialism of the late 60's and 70's. There is no explanation or longer tradition about him. One noted difference is that when Papai Noel arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat. When I asked what her favorite holiday memory was, Manuela cited Papai Noel as the source. Apparently, when her grandfather was still alive (he died when she was only 4) and she was still young enough to believe in Santa Clause, it was a family tradition that one member of the family would dress up as Santa then come bearing presents at midnight. She said the best part was seeing the kids’ expressions upon his arrival!

Decorations are also somewhat similar to what’s traditional, but with a more exotic flair since conifers aren’t exactly a common occurrence in the Brazilian heat. In place of the usual Christmas tree, huge Christmas "trees" of electric lights can be seen against the night skies in major cities such as Brasilia, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro throughout the season. Fresh flowers picked from the gardens are a fairly typical sight as Christmas décor, and fireworks displays go off to welcome the new year. 

One of the strung light Christmas "trees" in the bay of Rio de Janiero

 Like the western tradition of secret santa, the Brazilians celebrate amigo secreto or x-friend as Manuela called it. Used amongst friends and families, it begins in early December when participants write their name on a piece of paper and select one other person from the group to give gifts to in secret. During the long month, there are exchanges among the individuals using fake names. Then, when Christmas day arrives, family and friends gather to reveal their secret friends and offer them a special gift. According to Manuela, other than x-friend, they only exchange gifts between immediate family members (mother, father, and siblings) on Christmas Day.

Now, if you know nothing about Brazil, then please at least know this: their food is and will always be far superior to anything you’ve ever eaten that qualifies as “traditional American” food. That being said, a huge Christmas dinner is a must have tradition in most Brazilian households. Having large meals is unusual in the hot summertime, but for Christmas the families go all out, incorporating turkey, ham, colored rice, and wonderful fresh vegetable and fruit dishes to name a few. Manuela’s favorite holiday dish is Rabanada. It’s a sort of French Toast, covered in sugar and cinnamon, that is only to be eaten for Christmas.

A delicious plate of Rabanada

Manuela never made mention of what festivities used to take place, so I did a bit of searching and found an interesting tradition about a rooster. Apparently in the yesteryears all the devout Catholics of Brazil would attend a Midnight Mass or Misa de Gallo. "Gallo" translates to rooster, and the Mass is aptly named. Just as a rooster announces the coming day with his signature doodle, the Mass attendees welcome the new morning at 1:00am after the ceremony is finished in a joyous uproar. This tradition has faded away in most places. People still recognize it’s a religious holiday and Manuela noted that most people still go to church. But, of course, it’s also become more commercialized over the years. In fact, Manuela said that the cities are all focused around Christmas gifts- all the sales everywhere and very low prices abounding. Sound familiar? Though hey, at least they wait till December. That’s more than we can say for our own stores.

Misa de Gallo
In addition to the midnight mass on the 24, many families prefer to gather for a special supper (ceia) at midnight. On Christmas Day, there are more masses in the morning and later afternoon. Many people prefer the late afternoon Christmas Mass so that they can enjoy sleeping in after the midnight meal or spend their morning on the beach. Manuela’s family celebrates Christmas on the night of December 24th. All the family (uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and so on) is usually together. They have a nice dinner, with loads of food and lots of wine. Then, on the 25th, they all reconvene and pack a lunch of leftovers from dinner- usually a LOT according to Manuela- and head to the beach. 

Sounds like a rough way to spend the holidays, relaxing on white sand beaches sampling delicious Brazilian foods in the presence of family. Oh Manuela, how I do envy you. Alas, we can't all be Brazilian, right? Thank you Manuela for sharing your insights about Brazilian Christmas traditions and hopefully I did your country's customs justice. To everyone else, and by everyone I mean the three people that follow this blog (right Nate?), get excited. Tomorrow is my rendition of the holidays in Holland- you can guarantee it will be truthful, sappy and on occasion quirky- but overall wonderful!