I’ll never forget the time my mother first took me to spend the holidays in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was fourteen years old and I remember looking out of the hotel balcony to see a million lights on the beach. It was nighttime and I had never seen something like that before. Everyone was dressed in white, carrying flowers and handmade small boats, walking into the ocean and releasing their offerings into the waters.
It was New Year’s Eve and people were honoring Iemanjá, the Queen of the Ocean, the patron deity of the fishermen and the survivors of shipwrecks. I thought it was so cool to honor a female Goddess who reigned the oceans. Coming from Argentina, I was used to the Catholic religion, which is mostly dominated by male priests and figures. That was the day I fell in love with Brazil and its culture. And who knew? I ended up living in a small town close to Rio de Janeiro for five years just a decade after that wonderful holiday. Those years changed my life and the way I look at things.
What fascinated me most about Brazil was its blend of Candomblé, a tradition based on African beliefs, with Catholicism brought over by Spanish conquistadors. Candomblé is particularly popular in Brazil and in other countries, and has as many as two million followers.
On New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro, millions of cariocas, the native Rio people, everyone dresses in white and gather on Copacabana Beach to greet the New Year. People from all walks of life and religions watch the fireworks, hold flowers, mirrors, make offerings and throw them out to sea in hopes that the Goddess will grant them their requests for the coming year. Some people send their gifts to lemanjá in wooden toy boats. Paintings of lemanjá are sold in Rio shops just next to paintings of Jesus and other Catholic saints.
When I lived in Angra dos Reis, a town close to Rio de Janeiro, I would participate in the beautiful Iemanjá ceremonies. It was a meaningful experience for me.
We would first hike to the closest cachoeira (or waterfall) in the mountains, and bathe in the falling waters to wash away our souls of all the bad energy from the closing year. Then we would dress in white clothes to welcome the New Year with a fresh and clean start. Finally at sunset, we would proceed to the beach with flowers and candles to make our wishes to Jemanjá.
We would all get a chance to start all over again and wash away the past. There was nothing about making “impossible-to-keep” New Year’s resolutions, but more about starting anew. And the feeling was wonderful!