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Last update: 30/09/2013

By: Rita de Cássia Barbosa de Araújo - Researcher and historian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

The Catholic Church reserved some dates in its calendar for collective festivals; so that men – temporarily free from their daily work and obligations – could praise the saints, publically express their faith and have some rest and some fun, after they have honoured their religious duties. Some of the Catholic feast days are close to those that pre-Christians used to celebrate their divinities. These were peoples whose calendars were based on the lunar year, solar year or on harvest cycles. The start or end of harvests were often occasions for parties, balls, games and feasting for the members of the community.

The Christian Easter – the feast of the resurrection of Christ, inspired by the Jewish Passover – has the lunar year as its basis, and is established as being celebrated annually, always on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring equinox(1). Other Church festivals, called feasts, became orientated around the day of Easter: Pentecost, the Ascension and the Holy Trinity. As well as these was the secular festival Carnival, which the three days before lent was reserved for in the liturgical calendar.

A festival of excesses, Carnival invited licentiousness and total liberation of body and spirit. It was a time for feasting on meat, mainly pork but also beef, lamb and poultry, an abundance of wine and sex, games and parodies, as was demonstrated in the 17th century poem attributed to Antônio Serrão de Castro, which dealt with the excesses in feasting and opulence of the meals in the days before Carnival [Note: this text uses long-outdated 17th century language which is difficult to understand for 21st century Brazilian Portuguese speakers]:

Filhós, fatias, sonhos e mal-assadas
Galinhas, porco, vaca e mais carneiro
Os perus em poder do pasteleiro,
Esguinchar deitar pulhas, laramjadas
Esfarinhar, por rabos, dar risadas,
Gastar para comer muito dinheiro,
Não ter mãos a medir o taverneiro
Com réstias de cebolas dar pancadas;
Das janelas c`um tanho dar na gente,
A buzina a tanger, quebrar panelas,
Querer em um só dia comer tudo;
Não perdoar arroz, nem cuscuz quente,
Despejar pratos e alimpar tigelas,
Estas as festas são do gordo Entrudo (2).

Introduced to America by the Portuguese in colonial times, when the festivities where known by the name Shrovetide (Entrudo), Carnival conserved the tradition of eating well on this side of the Atlantic. Recalling the Carnivals of his childhood, spent on his grandfather’s farm in Afogados, Carneiro Vilella relayed some of the smells, colours and tastes that made up the Carnival banquet table of the homes and farms of wealthy families in the old province of Pernambuco during the second half of the 19th century. The preparation of the party involved, at the time, all the family members, closest friends and a large number of servants to prepare the sweets, snacks and copious amounts of dishes that the tradition of the occasion demanded. In the room called dos arcos, his aunt and grandmother ran.

In the kitchen heat, with the soot of the wood fire, the black slaves, expert cooks of apron and pans, gave life to other fine Carnival foods. A true parade of dishes was presented to the guests, ready to be pleasurably devoured:

It was the roast beef with its lemon slices pinched by decorative toothpicks, it was the turkey and the roast pork, the ham prepared with white wine from Lisbon; it was the great pieces of meat; then the fried shrimp, the fresh river-fish raised on the farm, on this very fertile and patiently tilled farm, from where came the oranges, bananas, ‘mangabas’, mangoes, sapodillas, watermelons, melons, grapes, blackberries and guavas… Everything, everything to receive friends who could show up in groups or alone.

The abundance that bloomed in Carnival contrasted the frugality of Lent: a time of abstinence and fasting, denial of the flesh, sex and fun, when the Christians were supposed to pay penitence for the since committed throughout the year. (4). The etymology of the Portuguese words ‘Entrudo’ (Shrovetide) – intróito in Latin, which means introduction, referring to the days that introduced Lent – and ‘carnaval’ (Carnival) – carnevale in Italian, meaning adeus à carne (goodbye to meat) – reinforced the opposing themes of the two periods of the Catholic liturgical cycle. In Europe at the beginning of modern times, the representations of the dispute between Carnival and Lent multiplied in paintings, theatrical plays and songs. It was generally personified as a young, sensual, fat and drunk partygoer – which explains the traditionally fat figure of King Momo at today’s Carnival festivities; and of Lady Lent, almost always wearing black, was represented by a pale, old, thin and skeletal woman.

On Ash Wednesday, when the partygoers had barely removed their masks, the churches opened their doors and awaited the faithful. The ashes, applied in a cross on the forehead, called the Christians to seclude and recognise their sins and regret them, remembering still the lesson of humility that ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. It was the beginning of the forty days of Lent.

However, exactly in the middle of the Lenten period, on the Wednesday night of the third week, there was a break in the contrition, sorrow and fasting situation. In France, a large popular party was held, Mi-Caréme, with parades and decorated carriages, on of which showed the queen of Paris or Nice, selected from the working class ladies of the area. In Portugal, there were the popular ceremonies of Serração da Velha, which had a ritual consisting of sawing a figure of an old woman representing Lent, usually made of rags filled with straw. Other times, the old woman was sawn in front of a house where some elderly person lived who was generally disliked by the community, symbolically anticipating their death. The ‘Serrar a Velha’ (Saw the Old Woman) ritual had some similarities with charivari, an extremely popular manifestation in pre-industrial Europe, a type of public trial that defamed those who had displeased or transgressed the beliefs and moral values of the community.

During Holy Week, a time of sorrow, meditation and prayer, prohibitions spread into the most intimate aspects of domestic and daily life. On these so-called days of darkness, the most extreme Catholics would not allow even the smallest laughter, singing or playing (6). The bells did not ring, the trains did not whistle, the streets filled with people wearing black. They walked slowly, spoke softly, spared their laughter. Piannos were locked so naughty children could not suddenly play the profane notes. The house was not swept, the furniture was not dusted, there were even people who did not bathe... (7)

The smell of the tide invaded the city. A smell that came from the fish, shrimp, shellfish and crabs caught on the fish-farms or sold at the markets or on the streets. Shellfish fishing, which happened every year on Holy Thursday night on Jangada St and its adjacent streets on the Afogados sandbanks, attracted many people to the beach. The housewives tried hard to make the fresh and succulent fish taste its best. It is easy to see, by the abundance and variety of fish, that it was a way to compensate the strict diet of Lent. Once again, the testimony of Mário Sette is important for giving an idea of how the city operated around these religious rituals and dogmas, which became a form of social, economic and cultural life:

Succulent fish and lustrous fish appeared as gifts from a grateful client, from a friend, from a job-seeker, from any interested or grateful soul. Mackerel, ‘carapebas’ (white fish), crabs, red snapper, small crabs were all bought. Everything was useful.
Greengrocers brought okra, pigweed, gherkins and pumpkins. Also wanted were shellfish caught on the Santa Rita sandbanks by the “mariantes” (shellfish gatherers). From the grocers came the dried shrimp, the freshwater fish, the cans of sweets in syrup and the bottles of ‘figueira’ and ‘moscatel’ wine (8).

A complete gastronomic repertoire, based on fish and crustaceans, was created to adhere to the Church’s laws. The varied menu included ‘caruru’ (a type of shrimp dish), frittatas, coconut sauce, ‘mingau-pitinga’ (a type of cod dish), ‘vatapá’ (a regional fish dish), ‘bobó’ (a regional shrimp and cassava dish), marinated fish, rice cakes and codfish with vegetables.

On Holy Saturday, the sorrow of Lent was finally interrupted. As soon as the bells rang, symbolising the resurrection of Christ, the population took to the streets, once again hearing the screams, noises and laughter. That was then the beginning of the popular manifestation of the hanging of Judas. An Iberian tradition, like the ‘Serração da Velha’, the burning of Judas was similar to the popular rituals that intended to be a kind of public trial of the acts and facts that took place in the community. In this way, the representation of the biblical figure Judas – popularly associated with that of a traitor – could be easily translated into other undesirable characters who people wanted to criticise or defame. The French traveller Debret witnessed, in Rio de Janeiro squares in 1831, the ‘hanging’ of several important government personalities, including the General Quartermaster and [that of the] Commander-in-Chief of the Military Police Forces (9).

The burning of Judas custom remained in Brazilian cities during the imperial period and into the republic. However, since the First Republic, as society became less religious and the large cities were modernised and tried to reflect industrialised European countries, other customs were adopted to celebrate Holy Saturday.

In Recife at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Judases continued to be ‘hung’ in the streets, despite being prohibited, but already the recreational clubs and societies were using the occasion to promote activities considered to be more civilised. The ‘Clube Dramático Familiar’ (Family Drama Club), ‘Cassino Comercial’ and ‘Ateneu Musical’ organised balls and even costumed balls, like the one organised by the Sociedade Recreativa Juventude (Youth Recreation Society) in April 1900. The Carnival associations, which united members from the middle and upper classes, rose form the ashes. The ‘Filomomos’ announced entertainment prepared for the end of the afternoon: ball games, new board member inaugurations, costumed and regular balls, hymns, flowers, music, and everything to honour St Judas and celebrate the new phalanx... (10)

The ‘Cara Dura’ carnival association, which had debuted and brought innovations to the 1901 Recife Carnival, also brought new elements to the traditional ways of celebrating Holy Saturday. In the same year, a marche au flambeaux was undertaken to honour His Majesty the King of Carnival. The ritual, in a boat that embarked from one of the quays on the Capibaribe River – a parody of the solemn entrances to the city by kings and important society figures in the Old Regime – began to be repeated every year by the club members, introducing street parades to the Holy Saturday celebrations. Parades, brass and musical bands, dances, decorated carriages, costumes and fireworks, all Carnival-esque, marked the reinstallation of the ‘Momo’ (Carnival) Kingdom in the city.

The organisation of the unique parade was done by one of the rich Carnival societies, composed of bourgeois and literate individuals from the middle and upper urban classes. Some chroniclers expressed the desire for Micareme to exceed the brightness of official Carnival festivities. It is interesting to note the social, cultural and political dynamic that were involved in the two carnivals in the early 20th century. While the first became more and more a popular party, in which parading clubs formed by urban working class individuals predominated the street parties, causing the members of the elite classes to retreat to club ballrooms or go through the public streets in cars; the second carnival was born with the intention of being an exclusive elite party (13). It sounded like an attempt to regain the public space that it had lost.

The more or less anxiety of the members of the dominant classes, or those who identified with them, to convert Micareme into a party that publically represented their specific social status, distinguishing them from the other social segments, was not met. Once again, just like what had happened in the real Carnival, the working class, organised in their Carnival clubs, joined the Micareme celebrations. In 1908, the popular clubs ‘Lenhadores’ and ‘Abanadores’ followed the parade organised by the ‘Cavaleiros de Satanás’. Two years later the ‘Espanadores Tigipioenses’ promoted a ‘Zé Pereira’ (Carnival Saturday) in the suburbs, which was attended by ‘Argolões do Peres’, ‘Cartolinhas’ and ‘Vasculhadores’. From 1911, the participation of popular clubes was intense and expanding: the ‘Caiadores’, ‘das Pás’, ‘Vasculhadores’, ‘Quitandeiras’, ‘Carvoeiros’, ‘Charuteiros’, ‘Bacalhau de Santo Amaro’, ‘Penacho de Prata’, ‘Filhos da Candinha’, ‘Cachorro do Homem do Miúdo’ and other clubs took battalions of partygoers to the streets to party in the April Carnival.

Micareme, as was implanted in Recife and the changes it underwent in a short space of ten years, at that moment was the symbolic expression of the conflict between the people and the elite. The fight for the domination of street parties and for occupying urban public spaces spoke of a certain realignment of political forces within Recife society, going through industrialisation, the port reforms, the fall of the Rosa e Silva family oligarchy and the rise of Dantas Barreto to the state government.

These, however, are reflections of someone who was not involved in the festivities. For those who were there, killing Judas, sawing the old lady, feasting or having fun at the balls and going around the city in animated Carnival parades, what mattered most was having one more Carnival and to singing in the streets:

Aleluia! Aleluia!
Carne no prato (Meat on the plate)
Farinha na cuia. (Flour in the bowl)

Recife, 18 February 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.


sources consulted

BRAGA, Teófilo. O povo português nos seus costumes, crenças e tradições. Lisboa: Publicações Dom Quixote, 1985. v. 2, p. 118

QUITÉRIO, José. Livro do bem comer: crônicas de gastronomia portuguesa. Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 1987. p. 132.

VILELLA, Carneiro. Recordações pessoais. A Província, Recife, 16 fev. 1901.

O dogma da Igreja, que prescrevia a abstinência de carne na Quaresma, a começar na Quarta-feira de Cinzas, era tão arraigado que a sua não observação era considerada heresia. Como tal, capaz de levar um sujeito aos tribunais da Inquisição. Ver, por exemplo, o caso do cristão-novo, radicado na capitania de Pernambuco, Diogo Fernandes, denunciado ao Santo Ofício, em 1595, por haver dado de comer carne de porco, à sua gente, em plena Quarta-feira de Cinzas. PRIMEIRA visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil: denunciações e confissões de Pernambuco 1593-1595. Recife: Fundarpe, 1984.  p.46.

SETTE, Mário. Maxambombas e maracatus. 4. ed. Recife: Prefeitura. Fundação de Cultura Cidade do Recife, 1981.  p. 44.

LOUREIRO, Chloé Souto. Doces lembranças. São Paulo: Marco Zero, 1988. p. 49.

SETTE, Mário. Op.cit., p.44.
id. Ibid., p. 44.

DEBRET, Jean. Viagem pitoresca e histórica ao Brasil. 3. ed. São Paulo: Martins, 1954. t. 2, v. 3, p. 197.

OS PHILOMOMOS. Jornal Pequeno, Recife, n. 75, abr. 1901. p. 2.
O termo não conservou seu significado original, no francês, que designava as festas realizadas no meio da Quaresma. Micareme, no Brasil, passou a ser utilizado para referir-se aos festejos de Aleluia. Mais tarde, teve seu sentido ampliado, designando os festejos carnavalescos que se realizavam “fora de época”, em dias que não aqueles três liturgicamente consagrados ao carnaval.

GALVÃO, Olympio. Mi-caréme. Jornal Pequeno, Recife, 19 mar. 1910. p. 2. 
A dinâmica social, cultural e política do carnaval do Recife foi abordada no livro ARAÚJO, Rita de Cássia Barbosa de. Festas: máscaras do tempo: entrudo, mascarada e frevo no carnaval do Recife. Recife: Prefeitura, Fundação de Cultura Cidade do Recife, 1996.

how to quote this text

Source: ARAÚJO, Rita de Cássia Barbosa de. Micareme. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.