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.