by Bill Egan,
Christmas Historian

Brazilians are a mix of people from many parts of the world, and as a former Portuguese colony, they have many Christmas customs which originate from this heritage.

One tradition is to create a nativity scene or Presépio. The word origins from the word "presepium" which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presépio is common in northeastern Brazil (Bahia, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Maranhão, Ceará, Pernambuco, Piauí and Alagoas). The Presépio was introduced in the 17th century, in the city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco by a Franciscan friar named Gaspar de Santo Agostinho. Nowadays presépios are set up in December and displayed in churches, homes, and stores.

The people of Northern Brazil, as in Mexico, enjoy a version of the folk play Los Pastores or "The Shepherds." In the Brazilian version, there are shepherdesses rather than shepherds and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child.

Papai Noel (Father Noel) is the gift-bringer in Brazil. According to legend, he lives in Greenland. The idea of this Santa-type character was imported from North America in the 50's. It only become popular due to the commercial appeal in the late 60's and 70's. There is no explanation or longer tradition about him. When Papai Noel arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat.

There is a very common tradition among friends and families, called amigo secreto (secret friend). At the begining of December, participants in the game write their name on a piece of paper. Each participant takes a paper (but does not reveal the name of the person on it). During the month there are exchanges of correspondence among the participants who use apelidos (fake names). On Christmas, family and friends gather to reveal their secret friends and offer them a special gift.

At the end of 19th and begining of 20th century many imigrants came from Europe and other parts of the world. They brought their traditions and adapted them to Brazilian conditions. So, the food they eat (specially in the South states) during Christmas came from Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other countries. A huge Christmas dinner, unusual in the hot summertime, includes turkey, ham, colored rice, and wonderful fresh vegetable and fruit dishes.

In the old days, devout Catholics would attend Midnight Mass or Missa do Galo. (A galo is a rooster.) The Mass has this name because the rooster announces the coming day and the Missa do Galo finishes at 1 AM on Christmas morning! This tradition has faded away in most places due to the high crime rate in the cities. In addition, many families prefer to gather for a special supper (ceia) at midnight. Masses are celebrated December 24 later in the afternoon, or early evening. December 25 there are masses in the morning and later afternoon. Many prefer the late afternoon Christmas Mass so that they can enjoy sleeping in after the midnight meal or going to the beach on Christmas morning.

Decorations include fresh flowers picked from the garden. Huge Christmas "trees" of electric lights can be seen against the night skies in major cities such as Brasilia, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro throughout the season. Fireworks displays go off to welcome the new year.

Like Brazil's other Christmas traditions, the music associated with Christmas is mostly imported. "Noite Feliz" ("Silent Night") is probably the song most associated with Christmas in Brazil. There are some Brazilian Christmas songs (pastorils and others), but they are not very well known.

Song: Noite Feliz (Silent Night)

© 1999-2003 by W. C. Egan

Special thanks to Fr. Paulo S. Panza, O.S.B. for his contributions to the information on this page. Fr. Paulo is a Benedictine monk in Brazil.

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