Why do Brazilians wear white and make offerings to the sea on New Year’s Eve? Learn about the influence of Afro-Brazilian religions on the festivities


Note from BW of Brazil: New Year’s Eve brings a lot of symbolism, hope for the year to come as well as rituals that millions of people participate in to bring luck, prosperity and good fortune. In Brazil every year at this time, we see tens of thousands of people wearing white clothes and throwing things into bodies of water. But what does this mean and what are the origins of these practices? Surprisingly, as much as we’ve seen displays of hatred and intolerance toward religions of African origin, elements of these practices can actually be traced back to these Afro-Brazilian traditions and the worship of the orixás, African deities.  Let’s learn a little more…


Why do Brazilians wear white and make offerings to the sea on New Year’s Eve?

New Year’s Eve is for many an opportunity for change. It’s a moment of reflection on the choices of the past and those that will be made for the future. In the Esplanade of Ministries, in Praça dos Orixás, or at parties in the federal capital, the most common color is white, which symbolizes peace and harmony. This tradition emerged under the influence of Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Umbanda and Candomblé. But there are those who prefer to take another path and vary in color, matching the wishes of a new year with the symbolism of each shade.

According to Alan Oliveira, professor of social communication at the Catholic University of Brasilia (UCB) and doctoral student of Afro-Brazilian culture at the University of Brasilia (UnB), the use of white in several cities in the country began in the 1970s. “We can note that white is related to some religions around the world, besides Umbanda and Candomblé. We perceive color in segments of Islam and Buddhism, for example. In Brazil, the influence is through Afro culture, which had the traditions constructed in our country,” he detailed.

The orixá Oxalá

According to the professor, the culture of wearing white for the New Year was first popularized on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. “It is noteworthy that the color is from Oxalá and, just as we wear clothes in this tone on New Year’s Eve, this also happens on Fridays. In the latter case, because it is the weekday of this orixá,” added Alan.

The dentist Maria de Fátima Alves dos Santos, 50, opts for white for both the representation of peace and the relationship with Oxalá. “It’s what I’ve always seen, because it’s what I want for my life. Moreover, it is a color that is linked to the divine and my beliefs. So, every year, I wear the clothes in this tone and I ask that all the bad things from the last year can go away, so that I enter lighter on the new path,” said the resident of Núcleo Bandeirante.

According to Tata Nkince Kajamungongo, leader of the Abomsa Ogum Tayó candomblé center in Ceilândia, Oxalá is the greatest father within African-based religions, and the use of white clothing would be to bring closeness to the deity. However, the pai de santo  (Candomblé priest) points out that this is not an obligation of these religions.

“Not all terreiros (Afro-Brazilian religious temples) stipulate that they must wear this color. New Year’s Eve is a worldwide convention, which indicates a new count and a new moment in our lives. Therefore, one can dress in the shade that represents the saint of his head, in order to please the orixá. If you are a daughter of Iansã, for example, you can wear red at the turn of the new year,” he said.

The orixá Iemanjá

Now, how do we explain all of the flowers and things we see people throwing in the ocean? This practice is in respect of the orixá Iemanjá, who is the queen of the waters and life. She is also the protector of women and mother of all Orixás. Her dance mimics the movements of the sea waves, moving her hands as if washing the world. Even if her day is celebrated on February 2, many people have the custom of making offerings to Iemanjá for the New Year.


These tributes at the turn of the year always happen on the beaches, where people put flowers, candles, white cocadas and perfumes in small boats at the shore. This is the best place to make offerings to this orixá, in thanks for the past year. In addition to the boats, it is also common to see people throwing flowers against the water in reverence for her.


It is said that Iemanjá accepts the gifts when the small boats sail a little and after a while sink. If the delivered offerings come back to the person, almost intact or complete, it is because the orixá has not accepted what was received.

Offerings to Iemanjá

The lady of the oceans likes white, pink or blue candles, champagne, plum or peach syrup, rice pudding, blancmange, melon and white roses (she doesn’t accept flowers of another color). In the New Year, many people also offer perfumes, jewelry and mirrors, since Iemanjá is vain.


It’s worth remembering that even in tradition there is a great concern with nature. So when a perfume is offered, people just pour the liquid over the flowers and fruits in the boat, throwing the bottle in the trash. In relation to jewelry and mirrors, both are left in the terreiro at the feet of the orixás or worn by the person.

December 31st has arrived and it’s gonna be a big night. Hopefully, all of you have fun, a memorable night and remain safe. And when you see these images coming from Brazil, now you’ll understand a little more of what you’re watching.

Happy New Year! Bring on 2020!

With info from Correio Braziliense and João Bidu


About Marques Travae 3418 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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