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While the nativity represents one of the Christmas traditions, just like the Christmas tree, the lapinha (or pastoral) is still well preserved, particularly in Northeast Brazil.
Câmara Cascudo points out in his Dictionary of Brazilian Folklore that, according to tradition, the Holy Family retreated to a cave (in Portuguese, a lapa or grotto), when the Baby Jesus had been born. From this comes the term lapinha. The folklorist also says that the lapinha is the popular denomination of PASTORIL, with the difference that a series of small religious plays (autos) were represented, in front of the NATIVITY, without interference from scenes unknown to the devotee.
According to Cascudo, lapinha is the pastoral presented in front of the nativity, that is, the group of shepherdesses who made adulations on Christmas Eve, singing and dancing before the crib, divided into two groups of blue and red ropes, the votive colours of Our Lady and of Our Lord. In other words, it was a theatrical performance with a sacred theme.
It was only around the 16th century – three centuries after the nativity symbology was created – that the dramatisation of the Nativity began with dances and songs. From the late 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century, the lapinha was performed before the nativity, with singing and dancing in churches or private homes, divided into two groups of red and blue ropes.
The distortion of the lapinha increased in 1801, when the bishop of Olinda protested against the shepherdesses because of the high percentage of worldliness that had darkened the innocent transparency of the sweet old autos.
In the old days, the lapinha was also represented by a slatted sash, where branches of pitangueira tree foliage and cinnamon were intertwined that perfumed the environment, and were adorned with roses and carnations. Today the lapinha is the profane branch of the dramatic representation of the Nativity, relating more to the lay people at Christmas time. In this sense, it represents another simple popular theatre, without the religious celebrations of the birth of Jesus.
In the Middle Ages, it was claimed that Jesus had been born in a cave or grotto, where the first people lived. Lapinhas were created for this reason. It was modified, according to Câmara Cascudo, and lost the religiosity of its past, assimilated African and indigenous customs, becoming a profane auto, including modern dances and songs that were strange for autos. The folklorist points out that today, the terms lapinha and presépio (nativity) are considered synonymous.
Recife, 16 November 2004.
(Updated on 19 March 2008).
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Lapinha. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/es/>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.