Although Rio’s annual Carnival is an amazing spectacle, there is perhaps no stranger sight than that which takes place on the beaches in many of Brazil’s cities each New Year’s Eve. Under the warm tropical sky and with the backdrop of the modern city, thousands of adherents of the Candombl&ecaute; religion—vulgarly known as macumba—honor Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea.
The advent of the new year is a time for renewal and to ask for blessings. The faithful of all ages, colors, and classes pour onto the beaches at around 10 PM, mostly at Copacabana. Some draw mystic signs in the sand. Others lay out white tablecloths with gifts befitting the proud, beautiful goddess: combs, mirrors, lipsticks, hair ribbons, perfumes, wines. Still others bring flowers with notes asking for favors tucked amid the blossoms. Worshippers chant and sing over their offerings and set candles around them.
By 11:30 PM the beaches are a mass of white-clad believers with flickering candles—the shore looks as if it has been invaded by millions of fireflies. At midnight the singing, shrieking, and sobbing is accompanied by fireworks, sirens, and bells. After that the faithful rush to the water for the moment of truth: if the goddess is satisfied with an offering, it’s carried out to sea, and the gift giver’s wish will come true. If, however, Iemanjé is displeased with an offering, the ocean throws it back; the gift giver must try again another year.