Religious Festivals in Bahia
Salvador and the surrounding countryside - the recôncavo, celebrate an annual calendar of sacred and secular festivals. Throughout the cycle of these large-scale cultural spectaculars are celebrations grounded in African spiritual traditions are public affirmations that combine religious beliefs, community identity, devotional practices, and frivolity. As part of the Bonfim Festival, women of all ages carry vases filled with scented water and flowers to the Bonfim Church. For Omolu’s festival, they carry large baskets of popcorn for the god to the St. Lazarus Church.
The Festival of Bonfim held during the second week of January, and the Festival of Iemanjá during the first week of February are the most important and the largest. These along with the Festivals of São Lazaro/Azoany, and Boa Morte held in August - create a seamless cultural-spiritual tapestry, and sentiment that is both African and Catholic. Bahia’s popular religious festivals are steeped in history, myth, tradition, and ritual, and are moments when citizens from all social strata unite through song and dance, in celebration and worship of the divine.
The Lavagem do Bonfim
The Bonfim festival brings together members of the Candomblé and Catholic communities. Held in January, the feast day occurs on the second Sunday after the celebration of the Epiphany. The lavagem or cleaning of the church steps takes place on the Thursday prior to the Sunday feast. From the Memorial das Baianas located in Salvador’s upper city, the women pick up their vases and flowers. After taking a few moments to arrange the flowers, and adjust their attire, the Baianas take the huge elevator Lacerda to the lower city and meet at the assigned staging point in front of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceçião da Praia. From here, on what is usually a very a hot day, participants parade a distance of eight kilometers to the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Built in 1745, the shrine is famous for its miraculous power to effect cures. There is a popular saying in Portuguese that describes the commitment of people participating in the procession: “Quem tem fe anda com pe” – “Those who have faith go by foot.” Upon their arrival at the church the Baianas, with a throng of close to a half million people looking on, pour scented water and wash the steps of the church with the colorful flowers from the vases they have carried their heads. The entire procession route to and from the church is one continuous celebration filled with singing and dancing to the non-stop rhythms.
The Festival of São Lazaro
Held in mid-August, this festival mixes Catholic and West African cultural elements as it honors the Yoruba/Dahomeian divinity governing sickness, death, pestilence, and health. Omolu/Azoany is syncretized with the Catholic saint Saint Lazarus. Participants gather in neighborhood of Pelourinho in the heart of historic center of Salvador. This neighborhood is a vibrant center of cultural institutions. At one time this area was the economic hub of the city where enslaved Africans were brought, sold and publicly beaten. The beating of slaves was legal in Brazil until 1835. As in other festivals, offerings are made to insure that the festival takes place peacefully. Fireworks explode, trumpet heralds sound over the captivating rhythms of drums; and the procession begins up the steep Pelourinho hill on their way to the church of St. Lazarus, in the neighborhood of Federação. Many participants balance large baskets filled with popcorn on their heads. In Candomblé, popcorn or pipoca is offered to the deity, and is used as a purifying agent. The popcorn is passed over the body to ward of physical sickness and to heal the celebrants’ bodies.
The Festival of Boa Morte
The small colonial town of Cachoeira, located in the recôncavo or countryside where sugar cane, tobacco, and bamboo are grown, has celebrated the Festival of the Good Death for more than 230 years. Established in 1823 by free African women, who combined their personal resources to purchase the letters of freedom for other women, the Irmandade da Boa Morte is the oldest African-derived female benevolent society in the Americas. During and after enslavement, the bodies of deceased Africans were most often burned, discarded in a field, or dumped in unmarked graves at back of a church cemetery. They were seldom buried in a fitting manner. To ensure that community members would have a boa morte or good death, members of the sisterhood shared their meager resources to improve the quality of their funerary rites. The three-day celebration consists of private and public rituals, and culminates on August 15 with a mass in commemoration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The festival renews the sisterhood’s promises made to the Virgin in return for her benevolence to their ancestors during enslavement. Following the completion of the mass the sisterhood followed by a statue of the Virgin, marching bands and celebrants parade through the city. The remainder of the day features samba, capoeira, conversation, food, cold beer, and tropical fruit drinks enlivened by a rum like distillation made of sugarcane.
The Festival of Yemenjá
The rich bounty of the sea provides life for Salvador. This nurturing power of the ocean is found in Yemanjá, the Yoruba spiritual archetype symbolizing motherhood. Her festival held during the first week of February begins early in the morning at a weigh station that overlooks the ocean in the fishing community of Rio Vermelho. From day break and throughout the day, countless people form long lines waiting to enter temporary constructed thatched structures; and on entering they place their offerings of flowers and other gifts to Iemanjá into one of the many straw baskets. The hopes and dreams of the people rest on these gifts. Whether arranged in large bouquets or presented as a single hand-held bloom, flowers from the faithful have perfume poured on them by fishermen who then carry the huge receptacles filled to their capacities to their boats. At 4 PM in the afternoon the boats are piloted put out to sea bearing their beautiful gifts. On reaching the deeper waters, the boats are stopped while the men present the multitude of flowers and other gifts to Yemanjá the Mother of all the waters. And these fragrant and colorful presents carry the wishes and hopes of the faithful to the spiritual realm. On shore the faithful continue offering their prayers; others dance to the sacred rhythms of the Candomblé drums, while others dance samba, play capoeira and participate in the festival’s worldly aspects.