Aside from a possible trip to the beach, Christmas in Brazil is not very different from Christmas in the U.S. Traditional trees and decorations are everywhere, kids look forward to a visit from Santa, gifts are exchanged, and a lavish meal is served on Christmas Eve. However, there are a few traditions that differ.
According to Mansion House employee Juliano Barbosa, "Christmas is very big in Brazil. I think because it's mostly Catholic, about 72 percent." He notes that a great deal is spent on municipal decorations.
Although decorations tend to be what one would expect, Emilio Bechara from Rio de Janeiro adds that nativity scenes are more prevalent in Brazil, with most towns featuring a life-size scene in the main square, and a manger scene almost always included in home decorations. Mr. Bechara has been living in the U.S. for close to 20 years and comments that the typical Christmas tree in Brazil has morphed from a simple tree or bare branch decorated with cotton balls to represent snow, to the classic evergreen (usually artificial) with balls and lights.
Many Brazilians attend a midnight mass, called Misa de Gallo (rooster's mass) because the rooster is said to have been the first to announce the birth of Jesus.
The main meal is traditionally served very late on Christmas Eve. Although some eat after the midnight mass, Mr. Bechara recalls enjoying the Ceia de Natal, Christmas dinner, at midnight.
The meal includes many dishes, and the presentation of individual dishes is very important in Brazilian culture. Madalena Stingenil from Espirito Santo, a southeastern state in Brazil, notes that a decorative tropical fruit salad, served in a watermelon bowl is standard at the Christmas table.
Although it's not common in the Brazilian diet, turkey is almost always the choice for the Ceia, though some families substitute a roast piglet. The bird is marinated days ahead, often with champagne or other spirits, along with lime and herbs. Rice is also an integral part of the meal, as are lentils, said to bring happiness and health, according to Mr. Barbosa. Farofa, a dish made with manioc flour, raisins and eggs, is featured in many Brazilian households, either on its own as a side, or combined with giblets for stuffing. Panettone, an Italian fruit bread, is common, as is rabanadas, a sort of deep-fried French toast with cinnamon. Wine and sparkling hard cider are served with the meal.
Mr. Barbosa remembers that no one was allowed to touch the food until midnight, when the guests would hold hands and offer a blessing before eating. Mr. Bechara says that in his family, while the kids were finishing their dinner, someone would sneak out and put the gifts from Santa under the tree. After the opening of presents, the all-night party would continue. Breakfast would be served around six, after which everyone would sleep until afternoon. On Christmas Day, Mr. Bechara says, "Everyone goes to the beach."
Mr. Barbosa notes that many families adopt a Secret Friend, or Secret Santa method for gift giving. He recalls that the presents would be distributed before the Christmas Eve dinner but, before revealing the recipient, family members would give clues about their Secret Friend until the others could guess whom the gift was for.
Mr. Barbosa also recalls how businesses in his small town would employ Santas to deliver items bought in their stores. On Christmas Day the Papa Noels (Father Christmases) would drive around town, announcing their presence by ringing bells, and would be offered something from the family meal at each house they visited.
Musician/puppeteer Bella notes that Christmas in Brazil is, in many ways, a combination of our Thanksgiving and Christmas. She says, "It's really a moment to think about life - what life gave us. We think about our souls and expectations." She adds, "Everyone would think about who doesn't have, and ask for forgiveness for prisoners and others."
Mr. Barbosa says that his mother would make up food boxes for poor neighbors. "Food is more appreciated than gifts or toys," he says. "I come from a small town, so you know who needs help."
In this country, Brazilians generally stick to the holiday routine favored by Americans. However, Paul Tenorio, Pastor of the Growing Church, will hold services on Friday as usual, to allow people to spend Christmas with their families.
All who shared recollections of Brazilian Christmas noted that it is mainly a celebration of family. Pastor Tenorio points out that many of his parishioners have a tough time around the holidays and, although he visits Brazil three or four times a year and has a church there, he always spends Christmas on the Vineyard.
"I stay here with my congregation," Mr. Tenorio says. "Some people don't have family here. People are cold. They're not working that much. We try to help and be family."
In return, he says that he and his wife are invited into many parishioners' homes on Christmas day. "We have to be prepared for a lot of food." It is common for Brazilians to spend Christmas Day visiting friends. After the mass on the 26th, there will be a big potluck meal at the church, where those who are feeling homesick can enjoy the company of their Island family. Feliz Natal.
Oak Bluffs resident Gwyn McAllister is regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.