How Brazil Celebrates Easter

Yes, Easter. I’m a lil’ late on my Easter article but (since I write articles for other sites) I sometimes have to be. 


Despite the 25% drop in proclaiming oneself Catholic since the 1970s, Brazil boasts the largest Roman Catholic population in the world (with 123 million followers). Easter, as one of the main Catholic holidays, is therefore largely celebrated in a land that also happens to host one of the wildest parties in the world (you know the one).

Easter, or Páscoa in Portuguese, falls on the day after the culmination of Holy Week, which also marks the end of Lent. Since many institutions and businesses allow for an extended weekend, many Brazilians spend the holiday either traveling for the sake of traveling (and to witness religious processions such as the one in Ouro Preto) or spending the time with family.

Aside from merely passing the weekend with loved ones, it’s a popular custom to give gifts of large chocolate eggs, either filled with candy or hollow inside. The tradition in its most basic form goes back to several longstanding or ancient cultures, where the egg, especially a decorated one, is associated with the new life and fertility. Also, it’s important to note that Lent is known as being a time of refraining from dairy, and eggs fall into that category, so it makes sense that eggs are to be eaten before and right after Lent. The chocolate aspect is said to have been added by the French, whose culture heavily influenced that of Brazil in centuries gone by.


Aside from the relaxing and the traveling, Brazilians also spend the long weekend attending religious processions, rituals, plays and, of course, mass. Far from the crowds, though, Easter lunch at home with the family is also an important aspect of the holiday (and a good way to balance the consumption of lots of chocolate).

While not a Brazilian tradition, per se, I’d like to leave you with a simple how-to video on turning a table napkin into a bunny. Feliz Páscoa!

A Juxtaposition of Traditions – Christmas in Brazil

This post is a bit oddly placed since it’s obviously past X-mas. I guess I’ll re-reference it in 10 months!

(Daily Rio Life – photo from her post on X-mas in Brazil)

With Christmas almost upon us and the arrival of colder days already here, we might be wondering how such a famous holiday is celebrated in warmer climes. Brazil, being mostly Catholic, is a country that has celebrated Christmas since its inception and many of its traditions are the same as those in the U.S. There’s midnight mass (called “Missa do Galo“, literally “rooster mass”, in English), carols, nativity scenes, mini Christmas trees and gift-giving, among other things.

There are also a few ways in which Christmas differs, such as one Brazilian legend which says Santa comes from Greenland and wears a silk suit (due to all the heat) upon arrival. Often on the 24th and the 25th of December you will hear or see fireworks, with larger displays in larger cities. Assuming you’ll be in Brazil over the holidays, something tells me there aren’t a lack of teenagers to gladly take care of the smaller and seemingly neverending fireworks displays on a street near you.

One of the larger differences is that on Christmas Eve, just before midnight mass, everyone gathers to exchange presents and sit down for the “ceia de Natal” (Christmas dinner). In the US, of course, these events occur on the 25th. In case you might have ever wondered why the meals are so large, I can shed some light on the matter. It turns out that Christmas dinner is an old European custom in which people would leave their front doors open to receive travelers and pilgrims. While not even our neighbors to the south eat with random passers-by, Brazilians aren’t strangers to leftovers from such large meals. A typical dinner consists of plates of turkey, fish, rice, farofa, nuts, tropical salads, regional fruits, cod-fish cakes, wine and champagne. It’s also important to mention a certain sweet, the Italian fruitcake called “panetone“, which has been popular in Brazil since Italians brought it over after WWII.

Despite the dissimilarities, Christmas in Brazil is still quite “American”, at least in the sense of seeing shops carrying a wide array of trinkets and using a variety of gimmicks to get you to buy things. Both São Paulo and Rio have fake gigantic trees that light up for your viewing pleasure and can take over six weeks to set up. Brazil hasn’t always accepted the adoption of American holiday traditions, though. There was a failed attempt to “Brazilianize” the holiday back in the 1930’s. It all happened when a few “Integralists” (politicians and intellectual nationalists) tried to make Christmas more Brazilian by creating “Vovó Índio” (Indian Grandpa) to substitute Santa Claus, but it didn’t really catch on. Researchers believe it was either the writer Monteiro Lobato or politician Plínio Salgado who invented this Brazilian Santa but since most documents from the time of Integralism (inspired by Italian Fascism) were burned, the mystery remains.

Whether American or Brazilian, Christmas is fundamentally Pagan. As such, it was celebrated as a way to praise the return of the sun after it stays at its lowest point in the sky for three days, only to rise on the 25th. Lighting candles and hanging wreaths are also pagan in origin. The modern custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s house can be traced back to Martin Luther and his wish to oppose the Catholic Nativity scene by offering up a Protestant alternative (a tree symbolizing the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden). Even the act of giving presents is attributed to an erroneous date, as legend says it was on December 6th that Nicolau (later known as Saint Nick) would secretly leave presents in the homes of good children. It is interesting that a once historical Dutch figure of legend known as Sinterklass somehow became Saint Nick and later, the Santa Claus that we all know today (whose famous outfit and appearance, I might add, we can thank the 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast for creating).

When we look past the confusing amalgamation of customs, both real and invented, what’s important is to share good moments with friends and family and let the rest be the rest. As Christmas approaches, I know I should be “dreaming of a white Christmas” and all, but I’m really wishing I were on a beach with some água de coco in hand, though I somehow doubt I’m going to find that under a pine tree.

In case anyone wishes to see the “modern” Santa, have a gander at the very first depiction of him in Harper’s Weekly, 1863. Feel free to enlarge it, too. Before Nast remade the famous character, he was depicted in a robe, as a tall and thin man and without a beard.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

The Killer Beauty of the Alamoa

(Pico rock in the distance)

The inmates of the old prison on the island of Fernando de Noronha used to say that on the night just before a big storm would come through, right at about midnight, an extremely beautiful woman would appear. She was tall with long blonde hair and completely unclothed, dancing to the sound of the crashing waves. It was only when the lightening flashed would her presence be seen. Her feet looked as if they floating in mid-air, above the sandy shore. According to popular belief, a blonde woman like that could only be German and so she was called an alamoa, a corruption of alemã (German).

Her story always differs but some versions of the legend say she was once the queen of the island and was angered by the fact that humans had begun to live there. Other versions point towards a religious allegory that shows her as the first woman to be betrayed by her husband and from there, she somehow turned into the alamoa, punishing any married men that might come her way. For the men she would attract and seduce, they fell under her spell, seeing her become a skeleton before their eyes. For others, she was just a lost soul, looking for a strong man to help her dig up a hidden treasure.

It is said that she still lives in a place on the island known as Pico rock. On Friday nights, the rock sometimes splits open, revealing a door from which a light emanates. From there, the beautiful alamoa can be seen, dancing to attract her victim. Those that enter would believe they had entered Venusberg, the palace from a German legend of a mountain where the goddess Venus resided. When the men entered the opening in Pico rock, they would soon be horrified by her transformation. Her beautiful and bright eyes would become two dark holes and her head would become a ghastly skull. Right then, the rock opening would slam shut and the poor soul inside would never be seen again, though his screams could be faintly heard for the next few days.

Some researchers say the story goes back to the Dutch occupation in the early 1600’s and that her story is a convergence of various mermaid legends. The idea of a supernatural woman that attracts and seduces men, transforming herself soon after, is common and recurring in popular folklore throughout the world, thus, the true origin is virtually impossible to determine. Origins aside, I’m not entirely sure I’d want to be caught lurking around at midnight on the eve of a storm. After all, where storms brew, so does trouble.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Who is Exu of Candomblé?

Exu is the orixá of communication. He is the guardian of towns, cities, houses, of axé (supernatural forces of energy, power and nature), of things that occur and of human behavior. The word Èsù in Yorubá means “sphere” and, in truth, Exu is the orixá of movement.

He is the one that receives the offerings first in order to assure that everything will go well and to guarantee his function as a messenger between Orun and Aiye, the material world and the spiritual one, be fulfilled. In Africa during the time of colonization, Exu was incorrectly compared to the Christian devil by the colonizers, due to his irreverent and playful style as well as the form in which he is represented in African worship, as an erect human phallus, symbolizing fertility.

By being provoking, indecent, tricky and sensual, he is commonly confused as a Satanic figure, which is absurd according to the Yorubá theology, given that he isn’t in opposition to God, much less is he considered a personification of Evil. In the Yorubá religion, there aren’t devils or even entities commissioned with the single task of doing bad things such as what occurs in the Christian religions, which say that all that is bad is the fault of a single being that was expelled. In Yorubá mythology, just as in that of Candomblé, each of the entities (orixás) have their positive and negative side, just like humans.

In Brazil, in the Candomblé religion, Exu is one of the most important orixás and always the first to receive the offerings, the songs, and the prayers. He is greeted before all other orixás, before all ceremonies or events. The Exu orixá doesn’t show up as a consultant like the Exus of Umbanda but he can be found at the entrances of all houses of Candomblé as a guardian, and in every such house, there is a room for Exu, always separated from the other orixás.

Monday is the day of Exu. His colors are red and black; his symbol is the ogó (a stick with gourds which represents the phallus); his contas (colored beaded necklaces, representing one’s rank in Candomblé) are black and red; the offerings are of goats and roosters, black if possible, and aguardente, accompanied by food made with dendê oil.

Below, is an hour-long documentary (in PT) on Exu, in case you want to learn more.

Dança das Cabaças – Exu no Brasil

The Spirit of the Mandú in the Recôncavo

There’s a legend that says the mandú, a character from Bahian folklore, came to be through the story of a couple that was constantly fighting. During one of their fights, the husband prayed for a plague so that his pregnant wife would have a son with crooked legs. And so it was. They had three handicapped children and went to live shamefully in the jungle. During the Iemanja festival, they went to the streets, dressed so that they could not be seen.

These days, the people of Cachoeira (in the Recôncavo region of Bahia) dress themselves as mandús during festivals and walk down the streets singing and giving off an air of mystery. It is believed that if one is touched by the mandú as it walks by, then they will become a carrier of a bad spirit too. This folkloric mandú is a remaking of the mandú represented in the worship of the dead and is seen as a spirit of light that is still evolving. In the Recôncavo, it is common to hear the expressions “Sai daqui, mandú!” (Get out of here, mandú!) and “Lá vai o mandú!” (There goes the mandú!) to refer to unwanted people.

These and other stories are full of mystery, where the most important thing is the wisdom found in living side by side with the unknown.

On the Air – Short Documentary

“On the outskirts of Olinda, radio and music meet to strengthen a means of communication that surpasses physical distances and persists through generations. From fathers and mothers to sons and daughters, the popular culture elevates the self-esteem of those with song, dance and the drum while incorporating new media. Video (in PT) produced in March of 2009 at the Cultural Center of Coco de Umbigada with the participation of several locally well-known cultural figures.

“Nas periferias de Olinda, rádio e música se encontram fortalecendo linguagens que superam distâncias físicas e persistem através das gerações. De pais e mães para filhos e filhas, a cultura popular eleva a auto-estima das pessoas com o canto, a dança e o tambor, e incorpora novas mídias. Vídeo produzido durante as Oficinas Livres de Rádio no Centro Cultural Coco de Umbigada, em março de 2009, com a participação de Mãe Beth de Oxum, Mãe Lúcia de Oyá, Zeca do Rolete, Neto Tranca Rua e Coco de Umbigadinha.”

In Brazil, it’s not a sin to be cool


“The atmosphere was electric at Reborn in Christ Church on “Extreme Fight” night. Churchgoers dressed in jeans and sneakers, many with ball caps turned backward, lined a makeshift boxing ring to cheer on bare-chested jujitsu fighters.

They screamed when a fan favorite, Fabio Buca, outlasted his opponent after several minutes. They went wild when Pastor Dogão Meira, 26, took his man down, pinning him with an armlock just 10 seconds into the fight.

With the crowd still buzzing, Pastor Mazola Maffei, dressed in army pants and a T-shirt, grabbed a microphone. Pastor Maffei, who is also Pastor Meira’s fight trainer, then held the crowd rapt with a sermon about the connection between sports and spirituality.

“You need to practice the sport of spirituality more,” he urged. “You need to fight for your life, for your dreams and ideals.”

Reborn in Christ is among a growing number of evangelical churches in Brazil that are finding ways to connect with younger people to swell their ranks. From fight nights to reggae music to video games and on-site tattoo parlors, the churches have helped make evangelicalism the fastest-growing spiritual movement in Brazil.”NYT (more on it here)

Special shout-out to Marginal Revolution (who started the “Why are books so expensive in Brazil?” conversation) for writing about this NYT story. When clicking on the “writing about” link, you will also find thoughtful commentary by MR’s readers.

I found one commentor’s words to strike a chord when he said that the common religious theme of sheep to the shepherd is also what is helping to bring in the youth of today by bribing them with ‘their own culture’. On a side note, I wasn’t sure if I should have placed this post under religion or business.

Mamulengo – Puppetry Brazilian style

I just got back from an excellent free showing of a Brazilian art called Mamulengo, performed by Chico Simões, which according to the handout,

“…is the most traditional and popular kind of puppet theater in Brazil. Passed along over the centuries by itinerant performers, mamulengo reveals the influence of the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and African cultural aesthetics. The form is still alive in the Brazilian countryside and in the marginalized outskirts of big cities.”

More specifically, mamulengo is a type of typical puppet from Northeastern Brazil, especially in the state of Pernambuco. The origin of the name is controversial, but it is believed that it comes from mão molenga (soft or floppy hand), ideal for giving life to the puppets.

Chico Simões & Culture Points


Chico Simões is currently the University of Berkeley’s Distinguished Writer in Residence occupying the Mario de Andrade Chair with the support of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Center for Latin American Studies. Chico is a puppeteer, an educator, and the director of a Ponto de Cultura (Culture Point) known as Invenção Brasileira (Brazilian Invention). Sponsered by the National Ministry of Culture, thre are presently over almost two-thousand of these Pontos throughout Brazil. There are also three in the USA, including one in San Francisco (see links on San Francisco). The purpose of the Pontos is to use art forms to effect social change in marginal communities.

Mr Simões distinguishes his art form as traditional (alive and envolving) as opposed to folkloric, which he describes as immune to improvisation (much like a museum display). Mr Simões’ shows incorporate the theatrical language of “Grammelot” that dates back to the 16th century in Italy, and involves a mix of languages, sounds, gibberish and onomatopoeic elements. Since 1983, he has been travelling throughout Brazil, studying, lecturing and giving presentations of mamulengo, in addition to various other traditional forms.


To the folklorist Câmara Cascudo, the mamulengo is the same as the French guignol and the Italian pupazzi. In all of them, there is a cloth in front, behind which hides either one or two manipulators that give voice and movement to the dolls.

The presentations are given in a public square, generally in the outskirts of town during religious festivals, presenting both religious and present-day themes. Mamulengo itself has been practiced since the colonial era, depicting the daily lives of the people in a format which is generally comical and satirical.

Further Info

Videos, Music and More

Music is sometimes played alongside the puppet theater, usually in the style of Forró. See a short video here. As well as being played alongside the theater, sometimes the puppeteers themselves sing, as can be seen here. For a lot more videos and information as well as photos, see this story on Mamulengo, The Theater of Laughter. Recife Guide also has a story on the art form.


In the city of Olinda, the Espaço Tiridá – Museum of Mamulengo aims to preserve the tradition of the dolls, counting among its collection close to 1,500 pieces, aside from showcasing daily presentations.

The Museum is maintained by the municipality of Olinda, with antique pieces preserving the memory of the popular masters of the art form, like Saúba, Tonho de Pombos, Luiz da Serra, Pedro Rosa, Zé Lopes, Antônio Biló, Manuel Marcelino, etc.

How the Mamulengo puppets are made (PT)

Carimbó – The magical song of the Amazon

(foto: ParaTur)

The Carimbó is considered an indigenous musical style, however like other Brazilian cultural manifestations, it mixed with and received other influences. Its name in Tupi refers to the drum (curimbó) with which the rhythm is marked. The carimbó itself as African origins which are present in the percussive rhythm and both its Portuguese (the snapping sound made with the fingers and the palms in certain parts of the dance) as well as European influences, or rather the melodies of the colonizers. Appearing in the area of Belém in the Salgado region (Marapanim, Curuça, Algodoal) and on the Island of Marajó, it became a traditional dance which later, when influenced by a more modern rhythm, lent to the creation of the Lambada and the Zouk (a musical style from the French West Indies).


In its traditional form, it’s accompanied by drums formed from tree trunks. At some point, the name of these drums came to be called “curimbó”, which is a corruption of the word Carimbó. They are also used together with the maracá, an indigenous rattle used in ceremonial war dances.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, more modern instruments were added to the Carimbó (such as guitars) as well as cúmbia and merengue influences from Colombia. The modern rhythm became popular in the Brazilian Northeast and gave birth to the lambada, which spread internationally (ironically popularized by a Bolivian musical group, Los K’jarkas).

The original instrumental formation of the carimbó was composed of two curimbós: one on top of the other in reference to the timbers or tones (agudo and grave) of the instruments; a wood flute (generally made from ebony or acapú wood, deriving from the Northeastern rustic flute made of bambu and used by the first Christians to pay homage to the Virgin Mary), maracás and a rural guitar with four cords, later substituted by the handcrafted banjo (made of wood, nylon chords and deer skin). Today, the instrumental part of the carimbó incorporates other wind instruments such as flutes, clarinets and saxophones.

Additional history

Being the preferred music of the Marajoan fishermen, although not yet known as carimbó at the time, the rhythm spread across the Guajará bay (where Belém is situated) by these fishermen and landed on the beaches of the Salgado region of Pará. In a region neighboring the cities of Marapanim and Curuçá, the genre solidified itself, earning the name it carries to this day. Maranhãozinho, in the municipality of Marapanim; and Aranquaim, in Curuçá, are two of the places that in recent times have reclaimed the paternity of the genre. In Marapanim, in the Salgado region in the Northeast of Pará, the genre has been cultivated well in the annual event known as the  “Festival de Carimbó de Marapanim — O Canto Mágico da Amazônia” (“Carimbó Festival of Marapanim – The Magical Song of the Amazon”), in the month of November.

For an idea of how the curimbó instrument sounds, see the video below!

To hear some of the Carimbó music, here’s Pinduca singing Garota do Tacacá (a song about the best dishes from Pará)

For more of an idea of what the dance looks like, see the video below

The Ritual

The dance is presented in pairs. It starts with two rows of men and women facing the center. When the music begins, the men follow the women while clapping as a way of inviting the women to the dance. Immediately, the pairs form, turning continually around each other and at the same time forming a big circle that goes counter-clockwise. At this point, the indigenous influence shows itself, when the dancers make certain body movements with their bodies thrust forwards and one foot in front of the other. The women, full of charm, customly have fun at their partners by holding the ends of their dresses, waiting for the moment when their partners are distracted in order to hit them in the face with this part of their clothing. This always provokes shouts and laughs from the other dancers. The gentleman that is booed by his own companion is forced to abandon the dance area. At a determined moment in the carimbó dance, one couple goes to the center to enact the famous turkey dance or “Peru de Atalaia”, where the gentleman is forced to pick up a hankerchief his partner dropped using just his mouth. In case the gentleman doesn’t succeed, his partner hits him in the face with her dress and subjected to the boos of the others, must leave the dance area. If he succeeds, he is applauded.