New Year’s Eve at Copacabana Beach – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Feast of lemanjá, Afro-Brazilian Goddess of the Sea

No less impressive than Rio’s wild and raucous Carnaval celebrations is New Year’s Eve along Copacabana Beach during the exotic, mysterious, quintessentially Brazilian homage to Iemanjá. She is the beloved African goddess of the sea and central deity (conve­niently conflated with the Virgin Mary) in such Afro-Brazilian spirit cults as condomblé, macumba, and umbanda. Well before dusk, thousands of her white-clad followers begin to gather on Rio’s many beaches, particularly Copacabana, where macumbeiros baptize initi­ates while others chant and create candlelit sand altars.

The air is thick with incense as a huge fireworks display turns the thirty-six-floor Meridien Copacabana hotel into a gigantic Roman candle. Cariocas (Rio’s residents) launch small handmade boats carrying their gift of flowers, perfume, lipstick, mirrors, and lit candles – anxious to see if lemanjá will accept them and fulfill their wishes (the boats are washed out to sea and sink into the depths) or reject them (the waves return them to shore). The best view for those not into entranced crowds is from above. If you can’t wrangle an invitation to any of the swank high-rises lining Avenida Atlántica, book a beachside room at the Meridien, but do it months in advance.

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