Christmas in Brazil: Common Holiday Traditions, Activities, and Celebrations

Since Brazil’s population overwhelmingly identifies as Christian, it’s no surprise that most Brazilians take Christmas seriously, whether they’re religious or not.

Some customs and traditions of Christmas in Brazil are similar to those found in North America, but others are unique to the country. If you’re in Brazil for the holidays—or hosting someone from Brazil for Christmas this year—here’s what you’ll want to know about some of the local Christmas traditions and popular holiday activities Brazilians enjoy across the country.

What is Christmas called in Brazil?

Brazilians call Christmas “Natal,” which is the Portuguese name for the holiday. Portuguese is the official and most widely spoken language in the country. To say “merry Christmas,” use the phrase “feliz Natal.”

In the days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, Brazilians will often say “feliz Ano Novo,” which means “happy New Year.”

The phrase “happy holidays,” or “boas festas” (Bo-oz FAY-stus), isn’t widely used in Brazil, but some Brazilians may say it to expats or people of non-Christian faiths.

Common ways to celebrate Christmas in Brazil

Christmas is a public holiday in Brazil, so schools and most businesses close for the day. The country’s location in the southern hemisphere means Christmas takes place in the middle of the summer. Most Brazilians get four weeks of paid vacation, and many choose to take their time off immediately after Christmas.

Christmas gifts in Brazil

Giving Christmas gifts is very important in Brazilian culture. Consumer spending in Brazil rises during December—even during the height of the pandemic in 2020, retail sales totaled R$37.5 billion during the Christmas season. Many people buy gifts for their entire family, including aunts, uncles, and even second and third cousins.

To keep costs down, some families opt to play Secret Santa, or “Amigo Secreto.” Everyone who wishes to participate in the gift exchange puts their name into a hat or basket. Each person draws a name and then buys a special present for that person.

On Christmas Eve, everyone gathers with their wrapped gift. One by one, each participant stands and describes the person they picked without saying their name. Everyone tries to guess who the recipient is, and then the lucky person receives their present to open while everyone else watches.

Papai Noel and his reindeer sleigh

Brazilian children look forward to visits from Papai Noel each year and leave out socks for him to exchange for presents. Like North America’s Santa Claus, Papai Noel lives at the North Pole, wears red-and-white, fur-trimmed suits, and drives a reindeer-pulled sleigh. In Brazil, though, you may also see him wearing red-and-white silk to beat the Brazilian summer heat.

Statue of Jesus Christ

Christmas decorations in Brazil

Many Brazilians decorate their homes to get into the Christmas spirit. Christmas trees are common, but most Brazilians opt for artificial ones and finish them with artificial snow to resemble the North Pole.

Many cities and villages put decorations on light posts for the holidays to bring citizens together with Christmas cheer. Both public and private Christmas decorations include string lights and many of the same traditional symbols popular in the U.S. and Canada, including Santa Claus, jingle bells, candy canes, and holly.

According to tradition, Christmas decorations remain in place only until Three Kings Day on January 6, a holiday that marks the official end of the Christmas season.

Christmas traditions in Brazil

Christmas traditions in Brazil vary, but these are some of the most popular.

Midnight Mass

For the nearly two-thirds of Brazilians who are Catholic, attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a long family tradition. Brazilians call this mass “Missa do Galo,” or the Mass of the Rooster. The name comes from the idea of the rooster’s crow ringing in the new day, just as Midnight Mass marks the official start of Christmas Day.

Presépio

Many families have a presépio, or Nativity scene, they display each year. Those with artistic talents may paint their own, but they are also available to purchase in stores. Unpacking and arranging the figurines is an event in many families.

Champion’s Lunch

In the afternoon on Christmas Day, families gather for a laid-back meal of leftovers from the previous evening’s feast.

Brazil

Beach trips

In coastal areas of Brazil, Christmas Day afternoon and evening may be spent on the beach, soaking in the sun and swimming in the sea. Extended families from all over may meet at their favorite beach for a few days of enjoying the summer weather.

Paycheck bonuses

Most employers pay employees a sizable bonus during the holiday season. In some cases, workers receive an entire month’s salary, or a “13th salary,” in honor of Christmas.

What’s for Christmas dinner in Brazil?

Due to Brazil’s colonial heritage, local cuisine borrows elements from Portuguese and Spanish fare. Many Italian and German immigrants settled in Brazil during the 19th century, bringing their culinary traditions with them. As a result, traditional Christmas food in Brazil often includes elements of European cuisine.

Christmas dinner in Brazil

Christmas dinner usually takes place late on Christmas Eve and goes on for hours. Families who attend Midnight Mass may have their meal immediately before or after the service.

Those who don’t, like Brazil native and Remitly employee Marlon D., usually start the celebration a little earlier. “My family always celebrates Christmas by barbecuing all types of meats: beef, lamb, and sometimes turkey,” he says.

Other foods you might find on the Christmas dinner table include roast turkey or Chester (a round ball of turkey breast), ham or pork leg, rice, cod, and lasagna.

Many families also serve traditional Brazilian dishes, such as farofa, a dried cassava flour mixed with bacon, salt, butter, and seasonings, and salads featuring mayonnaise and raisins.

On the Christma dinner table in Brazil, says Marlon, there’s always rice and salads—especially mayo salads.

Salada de maionese is one such salad, made with boiled potato, green beans, carrots, and olives served in a mayonnaise-based dressing. Salpicão, another popular mayonnaise salad, is composed of roast chicken, peas, corn, apples, onions, and… raisins.

“We add raisins to as many dishes as possible,” says Marlon. “That’s a thing in Brazil for Christmas especially, and there are jokes about it everywhere since some people hate raisins.”

Brazilian food

Christmas desserts in Brazil

Christmas dinner usually ends with delicious desserts, which may include stollen, a German bread filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices, or panettone,  an Italian dessert bread made with candied fruits and featuring a domed top.

Other popular Christmas desserts include cabanada, a Brazilian twist on French toast, and pavê, a layered dessert that’s made of biscuits and cream and similar to tiramisu.

What are some popular Christmas activities in Brazil?

If you are in Brazil during the Christmas season, you can get into the holiday spirit in a number of ways.

Visit a Nativity scene

Many churches set up large outdoor Nativity scenes. On certain evenings, actors and live animals may replace the statues, and choirs may perform carols. Churches usually serve refreshments to the public during these live Nativity scenes.

Attend a Christmas play

Many communities host a Christmas play called Os Pastores, or “The Shepherds.” The play tells the story of the Nativity, but with an unexpected twist—usually, there is a shepherdess who tries to steal the baby Jesus when she visits him.

Watch a fireworks display

On Christmas Eve, many cities and villages host fireworks displays. People often gather in the streets to watch. Sometimes, choral performances precede or follow the fireworks show.

Get in a festive mood with music

Music is a big part of Christmas in Brazil, says Marlon, whose favorite Christmas song is “Então é Natal” by Simone. Original Brazilian Christmas songs are just as beloved here as the globally known standards, and they’re played throughout the season in public places.

Brazilians also have their own versions of many traditional carols and holiday tunes, including “Sino de Belém,” sung to the melody of “Jingle Bells,” and “Noite Feliz,” which is “Silent Night” with Portuguese lyrics.

Brazilians singing

See the world’s largest floating Christmas tree

If you’re in Rio de Janeiro for the holiday season, plan to visit the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon to see the centerpiece of Rio’s famous festival of lights. Towering at 278 feet, the display is the tallest floating Christmas tree in the world.

Due to its size, more than 3 million lights are necessary to illuminate it, powered by five generators located on barges.

The lights cycle through a series of colors: orange to symbolize sunrise, blue to symbolize the moon, green and gold to match traditional Christmas colors, and multicolored.

Typically, the city government lights the tree in early December. The floating tree moves throughout the bay nightly until January 6th.

While you’re in Rio de Janeiro, you can also check out the permanent, open-air Saara market, which spans 11 city blocks. During the holiday season, it transforms into a Christmas market where local vendors sell decorations and gifts.

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