Every year, on January 20th, the city of Rio de Janeiro celebrates her patron saint, Saint Sebastian or São Sebastião. This christian celebration is very important for the cariocas, and if it can’t be celebrated as fully as usual, this year marks a special meaning.
Why São Sebastião?
Because at the time Brazil became part of Portugal, their king was called Sebastian the Ist, and was born on a January 20th (which is actually why he was named Sebastian, after the saint of the day). The new founded town of Rio was dedicated to him, and put under his protection and that of the saint whose name he was wearing. The real complete name of the city is actually São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, which literally means Saint Sebastian of the river of January.
According to the local legend, when Portuguese and French soldiers were fighting over the possession of Rio, both sides prayed their respective patron saints for help, and it is said that Sebastian, originally a soldier, came to fight with the Portuguese, helping them to overcome the French.
How is São Sebastião celebrated?
The actual celebration of the city’s patron saint starts long before the “official day”, as on January 7th starts the “Trezena”, 13 days during which the statue of Saint Sebastian travels to different spots around the city, ending on January 20th with an important procession through the downtown streets. Several streets are then closed to traffic, and the statue arrives at the Cathedral after an about 3 hour stroll. All day long, various masses also take place. The celebration of São Sebastião among the population has become less important than it used to be, becoming more religious and less popular, with the disappearance of dances for example.
This year, however, things are even more different: the procession is canceled, replaced by a “helicopter tour”: the statue will be taken around town by helicopter in order to give benediction to all the inhabitants! This may seem eccentric, but it is actually pretty trendy lately, various Latin American countries have used this means of transportation to bring blessing to the population on several occasions in 2020, Easter, Christmas and other religious and celebration days…
São Sebastião elsewhere in Brazil
Various other cities in different parts of Brazil are also celebrating São Sebastião today, because he is not only the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro, but of various places. In the state of Bahia, celebrations amready kick off on December 31st, and include staging historical fights around the possession of a statue of São Sebastião. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, it’s a more festive celebration, with the organization of dances and balls. In this particular part of Brazil, people thank São Sebastião for a miracle that saved a local young slave who prayed him, asking him for recovery. In the state of Paraiba, various celebrations and events are organized from January 1st to 20th, thanking São Sebastião for his help getting rid of a plague. In the state of Para, various events are also organized: processions, dances, wrestling contests…, to honor São Sebastião as a protector and advocate.
A special meaning to São Sebastião in 2021
Celebrating São Sebastião has a special meaning in 2021. Although many usual activities have been canceled, such as the procession, many Brazilians find it very important to celebrate this saint. He is namely known as a protector against the plague and other epidemics… Member of the Church and politicians have also underlined that the vaccination campaign starts that very same day, and would like to see it as a sign, enhancing the protection received from São Sebastião, messenger of hope.