By Ciara Long, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – New Year’s Eve in Brazil is accompanied by grand celebrations referred to as Réveillion (New Year’s Eve party), and beyond the fireworks and festivities are a number of popular traditions.
One of the most celebrated is honoring Iemanjá, goddess of the sea in two of the most popular Afro-Brazilian religions today, Candomblé and Umbanda. Her name stems from the Yoruba phrase ‘Yèyé omo ejá’, which translates to ‘mother whose children are like fish’, and her portrait is sold in shops throughout the Zona Sul (South Zone) in the run up to New Year’s Eve.
While both Candomblé and Umbanda traditionally celebrate Iemanjá at different points in the year, religious syncretism in Brazil led to the tradition of sending offerings to Iemanjá on December 31st. Iemanjá is also known as Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Seafaring), responsible for fishermen, and linked to celebrations of love and fertility.
“Brazil is a melting pot where many different cultures have contributed to our traditions,” Brazilian and former president of The American Society of Rio de Janeiro, Vanica Royster, explained. “A big celebration of the New Year is something that has been constant.”
Symbolism is an integral part of the celebrations honoring Iemanjá across Brazil. At Copacabana, spectators wear white from head to toe to represent peace, and may often accessorize using another symbolic color: green leads to good health, yellow to wealth, red to romance and purple to inspiration.
In addition, Mrs. Royster shares, “There has been a tradition, almost a superstition which I follow since I was a little girl at home: wear new clothes, or at least a piece of your clothing to enter the new year must be new, never worn before. It’s supposed to bring good luck.”
To wish for prosperity for the coming year, people throw flowers into the ocean as offerings to Iemanjá in the hopes that she will grant them their New Years’ wishes. If your offerings come back to you, it is a sign that Iemanjá has rejected your offering and interpreted as bad luck. To overcome this, in recent years Cariocas have taken to sending their flowers out on small boats, accompanied by a candle and sometimes a written wish.
Seven is considered a lucky number, as Iemanjá is one of the seven Orixás in Afro-Brazilian religions. This is honored by the tradition of skipping over seven waves while facing the ocean on New Year’s Eve, making sure not to turn your back on the sea while you retreat.
The number seven is also honored through culinary traditions on New Year’s Eve: it is customary to chew seven pomegranate seeds or raisins, and store the seeds in a purse for the year to bring prosperity. However, the purse must always contain money or the seeds will not help your fortunes.
Other culinary traditions include eating lentils, which are traditionally lucky. It is bad luck to eat poultry on New Year’s Eve, as in Candomblé and Umbanda birds scratch the earth backwards and so eating them will mean that you do not progress. As such, many Brazilian families will instead eat pork or fish, which move forwards.
Choices for a midnight beverage are important too. “Beer is the drink of choice of the majority, except for the midnight toast when everybody will pop open a champagne (or prosecco) even when they don’t drink it,” said Royster. Adding in her experience, “people tend to eat and drink until time for the fireworks then go see the fireworks and get back for the main meal.”