São João – the unknown Brazilian Festival

Brazil is well known in Canada (and North America generally) for Carnival, even to the point that some stereotypes of Brazil tend to focus on some traditional samba dance wear due to its association with some Carnival celebrations.

However, one of the other big Brazilian celebrations is nearly unknown outside of Brazil, that festival is called São João, also called Festas Juninas.

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Sao Joao is a festival mainly held in the North and Northeast, but can also be found in the interior of São Paulo and other large urban centers. It started as a tradition imported from Portugal associated with St. John the Baptist, whose has a Feast day in June, leading to celebrations throughout the month, and sometimes even into July.

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One major part of the tradition is the lighting of a fogueira (a bonfire) on Saint John’s Eve (June 23rd), which is symbolic of the fire lit to tell Mary of the birth of St. John.

This holiday has now become a celebration of the rural life of farmers (called Caipira – this word has similar associations to the redneck or yokel though, so they can use it to refer to themselves, you cannot), with boys dressing up in straw hats and plaid shirts, while girls dress in country dresses and pigtails.

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They dance in “Quadrilhas” (think square dances – even the music is surprisingly similar), and the festival celebrates the fertility of the land by hosting a mock wedding as the centre of the Quadrilhas.

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A mock wedding from São João, called a casamento matuto

Common midway games from North America are also found at the festivals, including mock “fishing” for prizes, ring/dart toss, and three-legged races. One-legged races are also popular stemming from their association with the Brazilian folklore surrounding Saci – a Brazilian prankster genie, who grants wishes to those who trap him or manage to steal his cap.

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Saci by André Koehne [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
Essentially, when trying to imagine Sao Joao, think of the Calgary Stampede, with a less rodeo, and a lot more emphasis on country dancing, and you’ll get the gist of it.

Carnival

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Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
One of the things Brazil is most well known for is Carnival. But, most people don’t even know that Carnival is associated with Lent (and accordingly Easter), being a celebration right before the beginning of the forty-days of fasting. So, Carnival actually varies by a couple months every year, the same as Easter does. So, in 2018 Carnival was February 9-14th, but in 2019 it is March 1st-6th.

Most people think about the parades for Carnival (which are the main events), and particularly well known are the Samba Dancers that I’ve discussed before in my misconceptions section. The parades are quite large events, attracting tourists from around the world, and with presentations by schools that prepare year round for a dance competition hosted over four nights.

There are a lot of cultural differences between the various Carnival celebrations, with different variations of music being one of the largest signs. In the Southeast Region, Rio De Janeiro and São Paulo mainly, the music is mostly Samba, in the Northeast Region you’ll find more Frevo, and in areas like Salvador, Axé Music the look and style of each dancing troupe will vary significantly along cultural lines as well.  When you think about Carnival, odds are you are thinking about  the Southeast regions, like Rio De Janeiro and São Paulo, as those are the two most famous celebrations.

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Typical Samba dancers, from the Southeast Regions,  – PlidaoUrbenia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
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Frevo dancers from the Northeastern Region – Prefeitura de Olinda [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
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One of the most famous Axé singers, Daniela Mercury.  Axé Music started out as an attempted derogatory term to refer to any musicians from Salvador, but the derogatory nature of the term never took shape, and now it simply described this genre of music  – Agecom [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
There is some variation in that cities such as São Paulo prefer more confined isolated Samba parades, with less interaction from the public, with the main official competition actually taking place in the “Sambadrome.” Whereas areas like Recife and Belo Horizonte allow for more public involvement in the parades themselves.

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The Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí, in Rio de Janeiro – Agência Brasil/Marco Antonio Cavalcanti [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)%5D
Beyond that Carnival is very similar to Mardi Gras, or other themed week-long celebrations (like the Calgary Stampede). If you have ever been to Calgary for the Stampede, and seen just how into it the whole city gets, imagine that on a country-wide scale, but less cowboys.

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Foto:Antônio Cruz/ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)%5D

Recife

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Sandro Helmann [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I will freely admit that I did not get a good first impression of Recife. My first time in Brazil I flew into Recife, but the airport, and highways out of town (we were staying in João Pessoa, 1.5 hours away), are near some favelas that are not nice. In addition, I had just flown for over 24 hours (including the layovers). I felt a bit uneasy about Recife, and Minha Noiva (My Fiancée) even apologized for the part of Recife we were in, and told me not to judge Brazil by that area. To be clear, it is not all of Recife, just the area by the airport and the highway out of town that was a little bit rundown. There is also a bit of a city rivalry between João Pessoa and Recife (think Toronto-Ottawa, Calgary-Edmonton, or Montreal-Toronto), and with Minha Noiva’s family living in João Pessoa, I have to be loyal to her city. My trips to Recife have always had a specific reason, rather than simply enjoying what Recife has to offer. My next trip will involve a lengthy stay to see the sights in Recife, and I’m hoping to change my opinion of the City.

That being said, Recife is actually a very well-known city in the Northeast of Brazil, being one of the three biggest locations for Carnival in Brazil (the other two being Rio de Janeiro and Salvador). Despite Carnival not starting until February, events begin in Recife in November or December, and even that early tourists start to arrive.

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A bloco party on the streets of Recife Raul [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
They regularly have indoor-outdoor block parties you can attend (called blocos) and random live shows either outside, or inside bars – remember though, like many cities in Brazil, if you are in a bar and a band starts playing, you may be expected to pay something towards their compensation. It is worth it as Brazilian Music is wonderful, but just be aware.

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A frevo dance and music performance Prefeitura de Olinda [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As a major tourist destination, there are lots of English on signs and in malls – one of the most unusual sights I saw was a Ben & Jerry’s, where all the signs were in English, except for the actual names of the Ice Cream, which were still made up of English puns.

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Praia de Muro Alto Cleferson Comarela [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Recife is named after the reefs just off its coast, so you can imagine that it has some beautiful beaches. However, you need to be careful in the water there, as the reefs are not coral reefs, and so the beaches do not have the same protection from sharks that other beaches along the Brazilian coast have. Attacks, while still rare, are more common on the beaches here than in other locations. In fact, surfing has been banned on the beaches of Recife specifically because of the risk of shark attacks, and swimmers are specifically warned by many beach signs to avoid swimming beyond the reefs. Personally, I stay on the dry land.