Experiences of a Dutchman living in Belo Horizonte, since December 2004, from month to month.
December 2006, part 5: Guarulhos: Celebration of Christmas, and the distribution of little presents to children in a favela (slum).
The two long weekends in Rio were followed by the Christmas holidays, one week later. I was invited by my friend Dayana and her family to spend Christmas in Guarulhos, a suburb of São Paulo. Two days before Christmas, I took the bus to São Paulo. For me it was the third time in a year that I visted Brazil’s major city. Usually, you might take the bus from Belo Horizonte at night. You will arrive in São Paulo early in the morning. Those who are able to sleep well in the bus, will have a fresh start in the morning. That time, I was not familiar yet with sleeping in the bus. It is not easy to have some night rest in an uncomfortable position, half-seated. You quickly may feel the muscles in your neck and lower back. A pillow, brought from home, may provide some more comfort, but such a pillow needs some extra space in your luggage. But indeed, I use my own pillow, when I have longer bus travels.
To São Paulo
However, I didn’t travel in the night, but I opted for a bus that departed in the morning. As a result, I could enjoy the varied and breathtaking landscape in the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo, where the highway is following the slopes of mountains. It was in summer, the heavy rains had transformed the arid landscape – as a result of a six-month period of drought – into a lush green landscape. During the bus trip, there were some heavy rains. Short but fierce rain showers; you see them approach from far away, like a giant grey curtain moving along the horizon. The sliding windows of the bus stayed closed. Late in the afternoon, I arrived at the large Tietê bus station. I took the metro to Tucuruvi. I continued with a bus ride to my final destination, Guarulhos. Fortunately, it was not too crowded, I had managed to avoid the expected Christmas rush.
In Brazil, not 25 December, but the vesper, on 24 December is of more importance. At day, almost everything is still open; everyone can do the final Christmas shopping. At eight pm, everything is closed, except the 24-hour hypermarkets. When you are in bad need of something after eight, these hypermarkets are the best solution. Christmas Eve more or less resembles the Dutch Saint Nicolas Eve, on 5 December. There are some variants on this day in Brazil: People buy presents for each other, and these presents will be unwrapped after midnight. There will be a complete Christmas meal around midnight. When young children are present, the meal will be served some hours earlier. Another variant is the ‘amigo oculto’ (secret friend) and ‘inimigo oculto’ (secret enemy). Prior to this eve, the participants draw each other’s names. You will buy your secret presents, which are presented to each other at Christmas Eve. You will give some nice present to your ‘amigo oculto’, and some symbolical present to your ‘inimigo oculto’, which may slightly embarrass the receiver. To much joy of the others.
I joined Dayana’s family to an uncle, where the entire family gathered. Dayana and her family belong to the social upper B class. That was expressed in the decoration of the house, the choice of the furniture, the party dresses, and the brands of the cars of the family members. The Christmas meal was also different to what is common in lower social classes. Traditionally, there was rice, but there were no beans. The rice was enriched with vegetables, like Greek rice. There was farofa, a mixture of manioc flour with various ingredients as vegetables, eggs, and bacon. A giant bone ham and a turkey were the main courses. As dessert, there were various sweet dishes, including a ‘torta holandesa’, a Dutch cake. They immediately asked me if am familiar with this cake, but I had to deny it. This very sweet cake with maizena biscuits and chocolate might have been introduced by some migrant, and who knows, this migrant might have been Dutch.
Dayana already had informed me, that on Christmas Day, they would do something for the poor in their city. Just before noon, I was asked to help them to load large bags in the pickup. These bags contained small plastic bags with presents. For boys, for girls, and for young mothers. We all had to wear a Christmas hat, and received a whistle. I took my ‘seat’ in the cargo space of the pickup. Dayana started to whistle the melody of ‘Jingle Bells’, we joined her whistle. Dayana’s brother drove the pickup slowly, the streets were almost empty. Bystanders waved enthusiastically at us, motorists and motor riders horned at us. They already knew what were were about to do, we weren’t the only ones that had the intention to surprise poor children with Christmas presents. Slowly, we approached a favela (slum) in the city of Guarulhos), at only a few kilometers from Dayana’s home.
Dayana’s brother drove the pickup backward to the direction of the favela. We stopped at a few hundred meters in front of the favela. They didn’t want to take any risk. The used the horn of the pickup, and soon the first little curious faces appeared at the corner of the street. When one of the adults gave a sign of approval, the children and young mothers ran towards the pickup. We distributed the present among the many little hands that reached to us. Dayana’s brother was supervising the distribution, that it was orderly and fair. We soon had distributed most of the bags. There was a little pile left for another, smaller favela. In between, I cautiously took pictures. Pictures of the children, of the distribution. And then, I saw a young girl with a begging expression on her face, begging for her present. She was holding a large bone in her little hand, and there still remained some raw meat on it. It appeared to be her Christmas meal.
Boxing Day is not celebrated in Brazil, it is a ‘normal’ working day. Only the schools are closed, since the students had started their long summer holidays before Christmas. They only return early February. I left Guarulhos on Boxing Day. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with another family, in a suburb of Belo Horizonte. And again, according to tradition, there was a complete meal at midnight. Again with roasted ham and roasted chicken. This family had organized a karaoke night, they all sang enthusiastically the musics displayed on the TV screen. I also had to participate, they had selected some English pop music for me. A musical start of 2007…
By Adriano Antoine Robbesom