This is a description of the Brazilian New Year’s tradition, specifically that of northeast Brazil. The informant is a third-generation Brazilian American, although she has spent a considerable amount of time living in northeast Brazil–specifically the state of Bahia–and is fluent in Portuguese. The informant describes the rituals and traditions common for New Year’s Eve and Day in northeast Brazil. She is careful to note that the traditions come from the traditional Brazilian religion espiritismo, which is a syncretic mix of African religions and Catholicism. She is not an adherent of espiritismo, but she states that the tradition is widespread in Brazil, even for those not following the religion.
MM: Um, so on New Year’s Eve, you typically wear a color that signifies what kind, what you want to bring into the new year. So the most traditional one is white. People want a peaceful new year, that’s white. Um, but the other most popular colors that people wear are yellow to signify wealth and prosperity in the new year. And red to signify passion and love and romance and sex in the new year.
MM: Um, and then on New Year’s Day, there’s a tradition in the northeast of Brazil, Bahia, to go to the ocean and, um, give, put white flowers on the water, um, as an offering for the new year for Iemanjá, who is the goddess of the sea and the most powerful, uh, deity in Brazilian spiritism.
As is clear from the informant’s description of the tradition, while there are clear connections to espiritismo, it is not necessary to adhere to the religion to be influenced by it in Brazil. The informant knows that the deity is Iemanjá who controls the sea, but the deity is described from a secular perspective rather than a religious one. That an expat can experience this tradition is indicative of its pervasiveness in Brazil and espiritismo’s entrenchment in Brazilian culture.
The colors are significant here, too, and point to cultural perceptions of color in Brazil. Red, for example, is associated with passion and sex, suggesting a connection with fertility, menstruation, and blood. The three mentioned are common color associations in European culture, but given the syncretic nature of espiritismo, the associations very well could have originated in Africa.
Iemanjá being the primary deity in espiritismo might allude to the importance of the ocean during the colonial period, especially given that such a massive proportion of the Transatlantic Slave Trade ended up landing in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. The treacherous journey across the ocean might be one influence, and the fact that Brazilian colonies largely existed along the coast might be another.