Semana Santa in Brazil: Ain’t No Party Like a Brazilian Easter Party

Easter Semana Santa Olinda Brazil
The Good Friday processional with the body of Christ in Olinda, Brazil.

Most days here in Brazil, I get the distinct feeling that the nation as a whole is doing its damnedest to keep it together and not break into spontaneous song and dance.

This is a country where the beer flows cold, the beaches grow steamy, the bikinis run small and the music plays loud. Everywhere I look — from the houses and favelas to clothes, jewelry and beautiful street — vibrant colors rule the roost.

I’ve caught glimpses of sidewalks and squares filled with people who burst into singing and samba moves on any given Saturday night, or Sunday afternoon for that matter.

But all those moments pale in comparison to celebrating Easter in Olinda, a tiny coastal town in Northern Brazil.

Because there ain’t no party like a Brazil Easter Sunday party.

Yes, the good Lord rose, and so did the spirits, voices and boombox volume of the entire town. It was a party for the ages, and along with the locals, we rocked it out in the town square and on street corners — eating, drinking, and, you guessed it, dancing.

I imagine that even on an off week, Olinda would make a fine impression. The quirky town is a haven for artists and art galleries, and a smattering of restaurants and bars playing their fair share of Bob Marley tunes mixed in with the Samba rhythms.

Easter Semana Santa Olinda Brazil
Igreja da Sé (Church of the Savior) in Olinda, Brazil.

Now, Semana Santa is undoubtedly Brazil’s biggest weeklong celebration, and the good times start Holy Thursday, when Passion plays begin performances in towns across the nation. We headed into the city of Recife to watch their dramatic production — it involved spinning devils with massive horns and plenty of fireworks.

But back to Easter in Olinda. I naively assumed Easter in Brazil might mimic the hoiday back in the U.S., where staid Easter egg hunts mark the morning, and adults and children don pastel seersucker garb and bonnets.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

The holiday started at 7 a.m. when a car equipped with might speakers and microphones rolled through the streets blasting prayers and psalms, the cacophony rattling me from sleep.

This display was soon followed by exploding fireworks, and finally, the incessant ringing of the church bell. By 7:10 a.m., it was impossible to sleep.

The day was filled with families rolling into church, eating massive meals at restaurants and capped off by the rowdiest damn gathering I ever did witness.

At dusk, we walked up to the town’s main square, joining others as they made the short trek up cobblestone streets to the hilltop plaza. Here dozens of street food vendors had strung up their twinkly lights, fired up their grills and begun whipping up sweet and savory tapiocas, acarajes (like a fried ball stuffed with shrimp stew) and various meats on a stick.

Drink vendors muddled limes and sugar into caipirinhas as cans of beer sat chilling on blocks of ice. The eating and drinking had begun in earnest and was showing no signs of letting up.

We ordered tapiocas with charque, which was essentially dried offal (oops – that got lost in translation until I had it before me) and ice-cold Skols.

At this point a samba band started playing, and people were consciously — or unconsciously — swinging their hips to the rhythm.

Easter Semana Santa Olinda Brazil
Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) Olinda, Brazil

Soon a buzzing overtook the crowd and I discovered a circle forming around twirling forms — spinning, kicking, leaping, flexing. It was a capoeira circle, and it blew my mind.

If you’re not familiar with it, capoeira is Brazilian martial art, developed by African descendents in the 16th century, that combines dance, acrobatics, the close-call dodging of kicks and music.

It’s fascinating that capoeira was once practiced by slaves who claimed it was a mere dance, so their owners would not punish them for learning how to fight or defend themselves.

The circle was the already epic evening’s highlight. Instruments were brought seemingly out of thin air, a berimboa (a type of single-string percussion instrument) and a tambourine. People clustered in the circle began clapping in time to the instruments, singers began a chanting, haunting call-and-response song carried along by the crowd.

And of course the capoeiristas began their “fight,” lunging, flipping, dodging high kicks, cart-wheeling until their bodies turned into frenzied blurs. People from the crowd who clearly excelled at the art took turns fighting one another, as voices and chanting and clapping rose to a raucous pitch.

By the evening’s end, the capoeiristas were shiny with sweat, their improbable muscles seeming to bulge bigger than could be naturally possible. Two remarkably badass women held their own against the gaggle of testosterone-pumped men, as well. I was rooting for the ladies, obvs.

I wandered home in a daze, thinking that this is the first time Easter has left me breathless.

I wish these videos did a better job of expressing the sheer passion and fervor of the capoeira circle, but they’ve all been slowed down to highlight the artistry of the martial art — it’s still spectacular. But the real thing, live and in person? That’s incomparable to witness.

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