Christmas traditions in Brazil have a rich history and are always lively and exciting, much like Brazilian culture. Christmas in Brazil is one of the most important days and the Brazilian people wait anxiously for quality time with family, food, and celebration.
Being a predominantly Catholic country, Brazil celebrates Christmas the way most Western European countries and the US do, with just a few interesting and fun details that are unique to the country’s vibrant heritage. If you’ve ever wondered how people celebrate Christmas in Brazil, you came to the right place.
Christmas in Brazil: Santa, Papai Noel, and Bom Velhinho
In Brazil, Santa Claus is called Papai Noel & Bom Velhinho, which translates to Good Old Man. The idea of Papai Noel was introduced to Brazil around the 1950s, but it gained popularity in the 60s and the 70s due to the commercialization of Santa Claus in the United States. However, while similar, the big man in the thick woolen suit isn’t one Brazilian children expect on Christmas Eve.
Some say Papai Noel hails from Greenland, not the North Pole. In addition, since Christmastime falls during Brazilian summer, Papai Noel dons a lightweight suit made of silk to keep him cool while delivering presents in the southern hemisphere. And, instead of hanging stockings by the fire, Brazilian children will leave a sock near the window. If Papai Noel finds the sock, he exchanges it for a present.
To guide Papai Noel on his journey across the Brazilian sky, Rio de Janeiro erects the world’s largest Christmas tree, which floats on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The tree weighs 542 tons and is wrapped in 3.3 million light bulbs, lit every year during their dazzling Christmas fireworks show.
The History of the Nativity Scene and Brazil Customs
Many Brazilian Christmas traditions come from Portugal, as Portugal ruled Brazil for many years. Among these traditions is the idea of building a nativity scene, called a Presépio. This Presépio is erected in front of Northern Brazil churches, homes, and stores. The name comes from the word “presepium” which means “bed of straw.” This symbolizes the bed of straw that Jesus laid upon in Bethlehem.
Another common tradition in Brazil is acting out folk plays. One of Brazil’s more famous folk plays is a version of a Mexican folk play called Los Pastores or “The Shepherds.” These two plays are similar, except the Brazilian version has a shepherdess and a gypsy attempting to steal the Christ Child.
At the start of December, Brazilians will have an amigo secreto, or a secret friend. Just like a secret santa, people write their name on a piece of paper, and then everyone will draw the name of someone else. On December 24th, people will reveal who they had as their amigo secreto and then give them a special gift. This kicks off the Christmas celebration. After that, usually near midnight, they share a Christmas feast and then celebrate until late in the night with plenty of food, drinks, music, and laughter.
Many Brazilians also attend a midnight mass called Missa do Galo, which in English means Rooster Mass. The mass got its name because the rooster announces a new day and this mass happens at midnight.
On December 25th, people gather again for a champion’s lunch with the leftovers from the night before. However, it is a relaxed day to indulge and possibly take a nap in the afternoon. According to the traditions, Christmas lights, decorations, and trees should be removed only on January 6th, the Three Kings Day, the day three wise men visited Jesus to give him gifts.
Food, Food, and more Brazilian Holiday Food
Christmas in Brazil is a family-oriented holiday where friends and family members gather under one roof to have fun and eat.
Christmas dinner, or Ceia de Natal in Portuguese, is served on the evening of December 24th, accompanied by festive music. This traditional-style feast is laid out as a full spread for all to enjoy. While each region has its own traditions, most Brazilian Christmas dinners serve what’s known as a “chester”, a large chicken that carries roughly 70% of its weight on its thighs and chest. Some households serve slow-roasted marinated pork leg (pernil) or turkey.
Since Christmas takes place during the summer in Brazil, the side dishes typically consist of cooling foods. The main course is often paired with green salads, mixed nuts, dried fruits, and an array of meats and cheeses. Brazilian Christmas dinner includes a cold potato salad called maionese that usually contains apples and raisins instead of the American classic roast potatoes.
Like almost all Brazilian dishes, rice is a staple side of this meal as well. White rice is often boiled, then sauteed with garlic and onion. You’ll also find farofa, a mix of dried cassava flour with salt, butter, spices, and chopped crispy bacon. The table will most likely contain various seasonal fruits, including pineapple, bananas, and mangoes.
Although Brazilians serve many delicious dishes and desserts all year long, they prefer cooking a few sweets during the holidays.
Rabanada is the most popular dessert for a traditional Ceia de Natal. Rabanada itself means “gust of wind,” and this pastry-like dessert is very similar to deep-fried French toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
As in most cultures, Brazilian coffee is served with all these traditional Christmas desserts, and of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without some after-dinner libations. Cold beer and whiskey are the most common drinks for festive cheer.
How to make your own Rabanada
Want to make your own traditional Brazilian Rabanada? Below is an easy Brazilian recipe that’s made of ingredients you’ll likely find in your household.
- — Half of a stale French baguette
- — 2 cups of whole milk
- — 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract
- — 4 eggs
- — 1/2 a cup of granulated sugar
- — Frying oil
- — Maple syrup
- — 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon
Step 1: This is the easy part! Grab your baking sheet and place a kitchen towel over it. Set it to the side.
Step 2: Carefully, cut slices of your French baguette into the thickness you prefer. (Remember to make enough for the entire family). Arrange your slices in a single layer in your dish.
Step 3: Grab a big bowl and mix your milk, vanilla, and your sugar. Pour your mixture over your bread and soak. It’s best to let this soak for at least 20 minutes if you’re able to.
Step 4: Refill your coffee! (This is very important!)
Step 5: Add 2 inches of vegetable oil to your skillet and set to medium-high. Beat two eggs in a separate bowl and dredge your bread slices through them.
Step 6: When the oil is hot and starts to sizzle, place your bread slices in it, giving them enough space (you don’t want them to stick together!). Flip every few minutes until both sides are golden brown and delicious.
Step 7: In a bowl, mix your sugar and cinnamon together and carefully run the edges of your bread through the mixture.
Serve the rabanada with a side bowl of honey or maple syrup. If you’re a fruit lover, you can serve some blueberries or strawberries with it. The cinnamon in it also goes well with bananas and apples.
You can find the full recipe here. No matter how you celebrate the holiday season, with good food, friends, family, and perhaps a bottle or two of wine, you’re sure to have a wonderful time!
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Toni is a writer, mother, amateur makeup artist, and coffee addict — not necessarily in that order! A lover of all things vintage, she’s an encyclopedia of useless 80’s trivia and adores a bold red lip. She is a second-generation Greek American with dreams of traveling abroad to see the land on which her ancestors walked but, for now, she resides in the ‘burbs of New Jersey with her husband and children.