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Christmas in Brazil: a Magnificent Celebration of Light

Christmas illuminations
A Brazilian colonial park decorated with beautiful Christmas illuminations

Brazilians were rightfully proud when their world-renowned Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

For many Brazilians, the acclaim simply underscored what the 130-foot statute has symbolized to them during Christmas in Brazil and all year long: that with outstretched arms, Jesus welcomes Christians and people of all faiths to the largest country in South America and the fifth largest country in the world.

Brazilians literally practice what they espouse: a mix of people from many parts of the world, and a former Portuguese colony, Brazil has many Christmas customs that originate from this heritage. The Portuguese language serves as a unifying force; while it is the official language of Brazilian, some people also speak English, Spanish or French.

The vast majority of the country’s 168 million residents, though, are Roman Catholic, and their devotion to the religion shows in the number of presépios, or Nativity scenes, that dot the countryside, from São Paulo to the Amazon Rainforest, which is home to more than 1 million types of plants and animals.

In Gramado, the tranquil scene is illuminated by the Natal Luz (Christmas of Light) celebration, a festival that opens in the beginning of November, runs through Christmas in Brazil and ends in mid-January of the following year.

Eleazar de Carvalho, one of Brazil's most talented musical conductors, opened the curtain on the first Christmas of Light festival in 1986 with a musical concert – a quaint ambition that has grown into an international sensation.

The driving force remains music and, in particular, a musical dramatization of the meaning of Christmas, with pyrotechnics and lights, and a series of Christmas concerts and productions, including the “Fantastic Christmas Factory,” a musical in which a child watches in wonder as cookies, candy canes and toys come to life.

Christmas of Light also includes a wide array of attractions, including a “magic” Christmas tree, which is designed to give visitors the sensation of being inside a Christmas tree. No small feat, people enter a 99-foot-tall space and are surrounded by 35,000 ornaments, 2,600 string lights, 1,000 strobe lights and artificial snow machines.

A tree-lighting show takes place every evening and is often followed by a night parade along a scenic route that draws skating angels, puppets, snow queens and other characters who follow Santa Claus and his sleigh.

Christmas in Brazil Draws Visitors to the Tree-lighting

The event draws about 700,000 visitors to Brazil, helping to make it one of the most organized – and well-known – Christmas events in the world. With so much to see and do, many visitors understandably forget to sample one of the commodities that Brazil is most known for: coffee. (Brazil’s fertile soil is a prime factor; it accounts for why the country produces 25 percent of the world’s coffee supply.)

With or without a steaming cup of strong brew, there is nothing silent about the nights leading up to Christmas in Brazil. Ironically, “Silent Night” is the country’s undisputed favorite holiday song. Groups of traveling musicians called reisados play renditions of the song – "known as “Noite Feliz" in Brazil -- with maracas, drums, flutes and guitars. They also may perform special dances, such as the Danca de Sorte and the Curiaba, which is about the adventures of a little monkey.

With all this grand excitement behind them, many Brazilians enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve dinner with family before attending Missa do Galo, or midnight Mass. A galo is a rooster, who “announces” the conclusion of the Mass at 1 a.m. Christmas morning.

This usually leaves enough time for children to leave their shoes outdoors in the hope that Papai Noel will fill them with candy and small toys.

Some families host a traditional Christmas dinner, known as cela de natal, consisting of turkey, ham, vegetables, rice and fruit dishes. Or they may add a special holiday touch to feijoada, a meat and black bean stew that is Brazil’s national dish.

Because Christmas in Brazil falls during the summer – Brazil is located south of the equator -- many families head to the beach with two staples: flour and beans. Or they might tote some of the country’s specialty dishes, prepared ahead of time: vatapa, a shrimp dish, cooked with palm oil, skinned tomato and coconut milk, served with fresh coriander and hot peppers; acaraje, a fried bean cake stuffed with vatapa; and alho de oleo, a garlic and olive oil sauce served over cold meats and vegetables.

Like their American counterparts, Brazilian children like to indulge their sweet tooth on Christmas. They enjoy rabanadas, or bread dipped in milk and beaten eggs, then fried golden brown and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. A close contender is papos de anjo (angel’s cheeks), or small yeast cakes coated in a syrupy mix of sugar, water and vanilla extract.

In a fitting close to the day, and the season, many Brazilian families say a prayer next to or under a replica of the icon that so many people across the world associate with the country: Christ the Redeemer, whose outstretched arms serve as a fitting metaphor for the season and Christmas in Brazil.

Written by Dianne Weller

Works Cited
Brazil: Christmas Traditions and Customs. < >
Brazil Travel Information: Brazil Travel Guide. < >
Christmas of Light. < >
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Parker, Ed. Discover Brazil. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2010.
Reiser, Robert. Discovering Cultures: Brazil. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2003.
Richard, Christopher. Cultures of the World: Brazil. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2002.

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