Brazil knows how to celebrate special occasions in style and Christmas in Brazil is no different! Brazilians celebrate Christmas in some very Americanized ways, but they also bring the diverse flavor of their varied ethnic backgrounds to the holidays by following customs and traditions of Portugal, Italy, and others.
The weather during Christmas is definitely different in Brazil than some of the other parts of the world given that it's often in the high 90s or even in the low 100s during December. It can be tough for anyone who has celebrated Christmas with cold weather, snow, hot chocolate, and roaring fires to understand celebrating while you're sweating constantly!
Brazilians set aside December 25th as a national holiday, but they do most of their celebrating, eating, and gift exchanges on Christmas Eve, December 24th.
Some families will serve Christmas dinner at midnight on the 24th of December. The children are served first so they can get to bed and sleep so that Papai Noel, Santa Clause, can come visit their home and leave gifts.
Religious families used to attend mass at midnight on the 24th instead of cooking a large dinner. This special mass is called Missa do Galo, the rooster's mass, because the mass ends at 1 a.m. on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, due to high crime in the cities now, mass is held either in the afternoon or early evening instead of midnight.
A folk play, Los Pastores, is usually organized during the holidays to celebrate Christmas in Brazil. The general story is that there are shepherdesses and a gypsy who contrive a plan to steal Jesus Christ from his manger.
The legend that goes along with this play is that Father Noel, otherwise called Papai Noel, will leave Christmas gifts for all of the babies or infants in Brazil.
Nativity scenes are seen in several areas of the country as well. The nativity, also called Presepio in Brazil, symbolizes the bed of straw that Jesus slept on in Bethlehem. These simple nativities are set up in homes, retail stores, and churches for the month of December.
A beautiful cone of lights is erected in the middle of Rio de Janeiro's lagoon for all to enjoy. The lights don't just shine through the night, there is an actual light show that happens periodically throughout the night hours.
You'll see blue and silver lights, golden lights, red and green lights shifting and changing from one to another. Lights shaped like penguins, bells, lace, musical notes, flowers, doves, and candles light up on different areas of the tree at different times.
At the end of the light show you'll see snowflakes and stars. The cone structure is 85 meters tall or just shy of 26 feet high!
Brazilians like to practice a tradition called secret friends or amigo secreto. Groups of friends or family members write their name on a piece of paper, mix them up, and then everyone draws a name. Throughout the month of December, you shower your secret friend with cards and notes using a fake name to sign all the correspondence. Then, on Christmas, you get to find out who your secret friend was and you exchange gifts.
Papai Noel is Brazil's version of Santa Claus. Their belief is that he lives in Greenland during the year and then visits Brazil on Christmas Eve, December 24th.
Children leave their shoes out in the open before they go to bed and rise on Christmas morning delighted to find their shoes filled with small sweet gifts! The children also know it's tradition to look for the gifts Papai Noel left for them around the house.
It is said that Papai Noel wears lightweight red silk clothing with his boots because of the hot temperatures during Christmas in Brazil. He has a beard and still wears a red hat trimmed with white silk.
What special foods do Brazilians enjoy during the Christmas holiday? Brazilians who can afford it will enjoy a specially prepared roasted turkey or ham, cod-fish cakes, a variety of fruit and vegetables, and colored rice.
In some Southern states of Brazil beer and wine might also be served - this is the European influence. Wine or champagne are also popular accompaniments to Christmas dinner.
Rabanada is a popular Christmas dessert enjoyed by many Brazilians. It is pieces of bread soaked in milk until they're soggy and then fried in beaten egg and covered in sugar and cinnamon.
The poorer people of Brazil will fix rice and beans or chicken and rice for their special meal on Christmas.
I've really enjoyed getting to know Brazilian Christmas songs. This is one of my favorites, which I love because of the sacred and beautiful lyrics and the sweet purity of the children's voices.
You'll probably recognize the tune, but the words are very different!
Here is the translation:
Bells of Bethlehem
Tonight is beautiful
Together she and I
Let's go to the chapel
Happy to pray
At the sound of the bell
The little bell
The God child
Comes to bless us.
Ring the little bell
Bell of Bethlehem
The God child was born
For our sake (for our good)
Peace on Earth prays the bell
The God child blesses
This our home
Here are some other popular Brazilian Christmas Songs
It's not unusual to see homes and stores decked with lights during Christmas in Brazil. Some towns and cities in Brazil will host decorating contests where awards are given for the best decorated house both on the inside and outside.
Gifts are usually exchanged on the 24th instead of the 25th and then after sleeping in late, Brazilians head to the beach for a long day of relaxation.
It's possible that you'll see trees decked out with small cotton pieces hung from the branches to symbolize snow in the Southern states of Brazil. It's their version of a Christmas tree!
Similar to countries like Australia and the U.S., Christmas carols are sung throughout the country too in celebration of the holiday and in honor of Christ's birth
Christmas in Brazil sounds a lot like the 4th of July here in the United States. The streets are often filled with people of all ages setting off fireworks and noisemakers to celebrate the holidays. Sparklers and rockets are favorites of the children.
Brazilian legend says that the animals like to talk to each other about the Christ child too! The rooster will say Christ is born! In response, the bull asks, where? And then all of the sheep respond, in Bethlehem of Judea!