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It ain’t Copacabana, but Brazilians bring Christmas to the shores of Lake Tahoe

Members of First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Calif., share a meal during the 2015 Christmas retreat to Lake Tahoe, Calif. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Alcenir Oliveira

(RNS) In Brazil, Santa comes in the summer and Brazilians near the country’s 4,600 miles of coastline hit the beach on Dec. 25.

So what’s a Brazilian living in Northern California to do, when the nearest coastal waters linger at about 53 degrees Fahrenheit?

Head for snowy Lake Tahoe, of course!

Rabanada, a traditional Brazilian treat, that is similar to French toast. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Neves via Creative Commons

Rabanada, a traditional Brazilian treat that is similar to French toast. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Neves via Creative Commons

That’s what an entire congregation of Brazilian Presbyterians does. Members pack up the presents, codfish, turkey and the rabanada (a kind of Brazilian-style French toast) and set off for the snowy mountains and the freezing lake three hours away.

They even bring their bathing suits — required Christmas attire for Brazilians who live near its famous beaches — so they can hit the hot tub.

“This is very important to us because part of the family is far away in Brazil and they feel homesick and wanting to be there to celebrate,” said the Rev. Alcenir Oliveira
, pastor of the Brazilian congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco.

“So as we get together as a Christian family they are not going to feel it so hard and be sad because they are not there to celebrate with the rest of their family. After Christmas, they are going to be more motivated, more spiritually high.”

Oliveira’s congregation numbers about 60 people, all of them from Brazil, he said, except one, who is from Portugal. They have a Portuguese-language service every Sunday morning at the white-steepled church.

Members of First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, CA, participate in the 2015 Christmas retreat to Lake Tahoe, CA. Photo courtesy of Rev. Alcenir Oliveira

Members of First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Calif., participate in the 2015 Christmas retreat to Lake Tahoe, Calif. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Alcenir Oliveira

But at Christmas, their hearts turn southward, thinking of the homes they left behind in Brazil, where almost 90 percent of the population is Christian. They long for the customary Brazilian Christmas traditions, like each family’s display of a “precipio” — a Nativity scene — many with human actors and live animals.

They miss the traditional Christmas dinner of codfish and rabanada and sharing it with the extended family and friends they visit on Christmas Day.

Several years ago, Oliveira thought, why not gather up the whole congregation and go on retreat during the holiday? Members booked three days at a Presbyterian retreat center in Lake Tahoe and took everything with them — they even took Papai Noel, the Brazilian version of Santa Claus, who brought toys for the children.

“We make a great celebration,” he said. “And then we have a beautiful dinner.”

First Presbyterian’s Brazilian congregation is typical of many Brazilians in the U.S. in mixing traditions from home with customs from their adopted country. About 336,000 Brazilians live here, according to the Migration Policy Institute, with the majority in New York and Florida.

Little Brazil St. in Times Square, photographed on Dec. 15, 2005. Photo courtesy of Diego Torres Silvestre via Creative Commons

Little Brazil Street in Times Square, photographed on Dec. 15, 2005. Photo courtesy of Diego Torres Silvestre via Creative Commons

In those places, there will be Brazilian-inflected Christmas celebrations in more accessible places than Lake Tahoe. In New York City, a block running from Times Square has been designated “Little Brazil” and the numerous Brazilian restaurants and businesses there will celebrate with music, dancing and special menu items.

Thiago Marques, 31, is a server at Brazil Brazil, a restaurant just off Times Square where the holiday menu straddles American and Brazilian tastes. Born and raised in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, he will spend this Christmas celebrating the holiday in another frozen place — Niagara Falls.

And while his mother is in Brazil, his Christmas will not be complete without a video call with her — “it’s never the same” as being there, he said — and a bite of something she used to serve at home — the panetone cake Italian immigrants to Brazil brought with them.

“That is huge for Christmas,” Marques said, taking a break from setting up the restaurant for the pre-holiday dinner rush. “I hope we have it this year.”

In Richmond, Cida Cassman looks forward to First Presbyterian’s Christmas retreat when they have it — about every other year. This year, she will be among the 48 people attending, with her husband, Peter, who is not from Brazil, and their two sons, Nicolas, 19, and Kevin, 16.

Cida Cassman came to the U.S. from the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte almost 30 years ago.

“We bring the memories from Brazil to here,” she said. “But when we celebrate with the church, oh my gosh, all the sadness is gone. The energy it brings to us helps us forget and have the traditions of Brazil.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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  • Now this is what real diversity looks like! The Christian message comes with a variety of food, music and dance as people celebrate their uniqueness along with their unity in Christ!

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