Imagine a family of 20 uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and in-laws plus a couple of dogs all sitting in a 10-by-10-foot living room in 100-degree weather without air conditioning. The children are running around the house trying to find the tiny baby Jesus figurine that Grandma hid behind the fridge. Whoever found Jesus first would get to put him back in the Nativity scene at midnight. And in the background, wrapped Santa Claus-shaped chocolates hang from the branches of an artificial pine tree.
Welcome to our Brazilian Christmas Eve.
Brazilian Christmas traditions are a reflection of how Brazilian culture was formed. Christmas in Brazil is a cornucopia of different traditions bundled into a final package that doesn’t necessarily fit with the geographical and social realities of the country. December is summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, but we still stuff our faces with turkey, potatoes and panettone – which is not exactly conducive to a smooth digestion.
My Christmas Eve memories as a child are marked by my paternal grandmother’s dinner table lined with stuffed turkey, pork loin, an estimated 10 pounds of potato salad and a miscellany of pickled everything. On a buffet table to the side, Grandma laid out nuts, dried fruit and sliced panettone, an Italian sweet bread with dried fruit.
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But the main dish was always a decorated plate of one of the ridiculously huge Brazilian chickens called Chesters, which, as the name implies, have overly meaty breasts. These specially bred chickens hit the Brazilian market in 1982 and soon became a tradition around Christmas time served with Brazilian-style stuffing – for those who can afford them, of course, because the price per kilo is almost 3 times that of a regular chicken.
Different families have unique ways of passing the time before midnight. In my family, we play bingo. A close friend, Gabriela Kuhn, attends Missa do Galo – a kind of Mass – at 7 p.m. instead of the traditional midnight time frame, “so we can search the presents around the house before midnight. My mom would put fake boxes under the tree for decoration while the real deal was hidden somewhere else,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn is from the south of Brazil, and her different traditions show that, depending which part of the country you’re in, the influence of the predominant immigrants in that area will determine how Christmas is celebrated.
The Brazilian far south is historically dominated by immigrants from Italy and Germany. The traditional style of Brazilian barbecue is a staple of that region. Sure enough, churrasco, as it is called, is a fairly common and affordable alternate Christmas Eve dinner choice for the southern middle class. Skewers of Brazilian cuts of red meat, ham and chicken roast on the pit as guests nibble throughout the evening. In the northeast, lively parties to the sound of traditional Brazilian music are also quite common.
But across the country, the night always ends the same way. When midnight hits, Brazilians go around wishing guests a “Feliz Natal” and many blessings before distributing gifts.
Christmas has remained a joyous celebration in Brazil. Maybe the dinner table isn’t packed with food every year, or maybe Secret Santa replaces plentiful gift giving to cut down on expenses.
But rest assured that when you step out onto the street at midnight, fireworks will still light the sky, the bus drivers working overtime will honk and scream “Feliz Natal!” as they pass by, and you’ll get a hug from every one of your family members.
Everyone in your family… and I mean everyone. Aside from having divorced parents or being sick, every other excuse to miss Christmas Eve will be gossiped about.
Christmas is celebrated in one of two places: your grandparents’ house or someone’s beach house – both of which have no air conditioning and are unbearably small.
Brazilians gather on Christmas Eve to interact, eat and wait until precisely midnight to hug and kiss before exchanging presents. Christmas Day is only an opportunity to finish off leftover food.
A miscellany of cultures influenced Brazilian tradition, creating a cohesive way of celebrating Christmas in the way that is fashionable around the globe while also keeping true to the strong Brazilian family ties.
Stela Khury: @stelakhury