By Chesney Hearst, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Christmas is in the air in Rio, from the decorations in the major shopping centers to the Santas (Papai Noels) appearing in full traditional costumes. The European and American representations of Christmas might look a bit out of place in the tropical heat, but the holiday is still a celebration of food, family, lights, gift-giving and for some, religion in Rio.
The Christmas season officially began in the city when the famous Lagoa Christmas tree (Árvore de Natal) was lit on Saturday, November 30th. Sponsored by Bradesco Seguros, it is the largest floating Christmas tree in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
A whopping 85 meters (almost 279 feet) tall, it sits atop the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone). This year the 18th annual lighting of the tree was witnessed by the crowd of families, residents and foreigners alike who had gathered around the Lagoa in the rain to watch a fireworks display that ushered in the season.
With four scenes – created by 3 million microlights, two thousand strobe effects, one hundred meters of hoses and one hundred LED reflectors – playing on a constant loop, the tree will remain floating on the Lagoa throughout the holiday season.
Additionally, to help foreigners and visitors get into the spirit of the season, many expatriate societies including the British and Commonwealth Society (BCS), the International Club of Rio (InC) and the American Society of Rio de Janeiro (AmSoc Rio) usually hold holiday events. This year the BCS will hold its annual Christmas Party complete with Christmas carols, a raffle, special tea and scones and a turkey buffet, on Saturday, December 14th in Jubilee Hall in Botafogo.
Many additional musical performances, fairs and events will take place throughout the city leading up to Christmas day. In 2012 Stevie Wonder and Gilberto Gil played for free on Copacabana Beach in celebration of the season.
For most Brazilians the true celebration of Christmas officially begins on Christmas Eve, and most businesses close early. Gifts are often exchanged then, and a Christmas meal traditionally is served at midnight.
In Brazil, main dishes are bacalhau (salted cod fish) and a large ham or turkey served with rice. Various desserts may follow including the delicious rabanaba, a type of bread similar to french toast, which is soaked in eggs and milk, baked or fried and then sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
For those who do not or cannot eat at home, many restaurants close on Christmas Eve but the famous Brazilian restaurant chain Porcão will be open and serving its traditionally large selection of meats and additional special dishes for the occasion. Also in Ipanema, the Gringo Café, is known to comfort travelers and those living abroad by serving a traditional home cooked holiday meal similar to those prepared in America during Christmas time.
Those seeking religious services in English in Rio can head to either Christ Church in Botafogo, the only English speaking Anglican Church in the city and the Union Church of Rio de Janeiro located in Barra da Tijuca. Another Catholic Christmas tradition it to watch the broadcasts of the Pope delivering his annual Christmas Day message.
Ben Phillips, Chaplain at the Christ Church tells The Rio Times, “The international community keeps up the traditions of home with the sale of Christmas Crackers and Puddings. We have a candle lit carol service on Sunday, December 15th at 6PM and a family communion service at 10:30 AM on Christmas Day. As soon as you step into the Botafogo site it feels like you have stepped into a little England (in an oven).”
Finally in Rio, there is one tradition that can only take place in warmer climates. Many families traditionally head to the beach to celebrate the rest of their Christmas Day in sun.