It might be flip flop and sunglasses weather, but a traditional Brazilian Christmas doesn’t look too different to most Christmas in Western Europe or America. The first Portuguese settlers came to Brazil over five centuries ago, so many of the country’s Christmas customs, traditions and superstitions were inherited from Portugal. Interested in finding out how Brazilians like to spend the festive holidays? Here’s a handful of Christmas traditions in Brazil to help get you up to speed.
Brazilian Christmas Traditions
1. Papai Noel
In Brazil, Santa Claus is called Papai Noel. He travels down from the North Pole every year on Christmas Eve to distribute gifts to well-behaved children. He doesn’t bother slipping down chimneys though. Children should leave a sock or a stocking on the windowsill and if he finds it, he’ll replace it with a gift.
Like the traditional Santa Claus, Papai Noel wears a thick red and white robe, though some say he wears silk to keep himself cool in the sticky weather.
2. A ‘thirteenth salary’
In Brazil, it’s common to receive a ‘thirteenth salary‘ at the end of the year. That means that most urban, rural and domestic employees will receive twice the normal amount of pay in December. Former president João Goulart introduced the scheme in the early 1960s a bid to boost the economy around Christmas time, increasing sales and tax collection.
The extra salary is paid to the employee by the end of the year in two instalments, once before November 30th and once before December 20th. It’s illegal to pay the 13th salary in one instalment.
3. Nativity scenes are a big deal
The Presepio or Nativity Scene is an important tradition in Brazil. People will set them up in their homes, at the shopping malls, in restaurants and the streets. The word comes from the Latin ‘Presepium’, which refers to the bed of straw baby Jesus slept on in Bethlehem. A Portuguese Friar called Gaspar de Santa Agostinho introduced the tradition in the 17th century and they’ve been an integral part of Christmas ever since.
People start setting up nativity scenes at the start of December and take them down on New Year’s Eve.
4. … as is Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is a time to celebrate with family and eat so much you can hardly speak. People will usually spend the afternoon with their friends, then head home for a big family meal. It’s a relatively smart occasion and most people will wear their best get-up and get their hair done for the occasion. The main meal is served at around 10 pm, then at Midnight everyone will hop up, clink their glasses and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Presents are exchanged after this.
5. What’s for lunch?
It’s less about lunch and all about the dinner the night before, actually. Christmas Day itself is more of a low-key affair, celebrated with a smaller group of family. Christmas Eve dinner features a Christmas Turkey, Chester, vegetables, rice, ham and potato salads. You might have cod with this too, or even a lasagne. Pudding varies from region to region. In some southern towns, they eat a pudding similar to stollen, influenced by the German Christmas tradition. In other parts, an Italian-inspired pannettone is more common.
6. The Little Christmas Box
The Little Box or ‘Caixinha’ is a cardboard box decorated with Christmas wrapping paper which is placed in reception rooms, next to cashiers in shops, at hairdressers, restaurants and cafes. People can then add coins and notes to the boxes as tips for the employees. This provides a welcome boost of income at Christmas time for lower-salaried workers.
7. Big family? Time for Amigo Secreto
Christmas is a real family affair in Brazil. Getting together such a large group of people for gift-giving can quickly get expensive and time-consuming so many Brazilians do Amigo Secreto or Amigo Oculto instead. It’s a sort of Secret Santa, where one person is allocated the responsibility of buying a gift for someone else, without them knowing. When the exchange begins, everyone guesses who it is before giving them the present.