Brazil has some unique customs when it comes to Christmas time. In this article we will explain what “caixinha de Natal”, “cesta de Natal” and “amigo secreto” are.
Foreigners going to Brazil come across the local habits and cultural things which are usually seen as “the strange things Brazilians do”. As the end of the year approaches, three of these Brazilian practices which can be strange to foreigners are caixinha de Natal (the little Christmas box), cesta de Natal (a Christmas basket), and amigo secreto (the Secret Santa).
Little Christmas Box
In Brazil, caixinha - freely translated as “little box” - is the term used to talk about an extra amount of money given to service providers as a way to show appreciation for the good services they provided.
The little Christmas box is literally a cardboard box, usually decorated with Christmas gift wrapping paper, where people can put coins and notes, as if they were tips. It’s usually placed in buildings’ reception rooms, in small stores cashiers and in other establishments such as bakeries, hair and beauty salons and restaurants, serving as the storage of Christmas gratifications to the employees, given by the clientele.
The Christmas box was created to complement the income of service providers, especially when considering that their salaries aren't that high and, by the end of the year, their budget is not large enough to buy some gifts or have a reasonable Christmas dinner. Apart from commercial establishments, it’s also common in residential buildings. The employees benefiting from this extra money are doormen, postmen, garbage collectors, cleaners, valet parking attendants and others.
Not all places have this system and it’s not obligatory to give the money either; it’s just a Brazilian custom, which may be given in case it fits in the family expenses. Etiquette experts say that employees who receive the 13th salary may not receive a Christmas box, but a small gift or any other type of present showing that the employer, the client or the local resident remembered them.
In places where there is no Christmas box, the advice is to give the money in an envelope, straight to the person. The same thing is advisable for the cases in which the person is giving extra money only to a specific service provider. There are no rules about the amount that has to be given, as it depends on the closeness between the person and the service provider, and the effectiveness in the service.
Little Christmas boxes sometimes are also called caixinha de Ano Novo, or New Year’s little box.
Little Christmas boxes have been banned from some residential buildings as they caused resentment between the residents and the service providers. The main reason is because if the building established a Christmas box, its residents could feel forced to give the money. And in other cases, because sometimes the money put in the box wasn’t divided equally between the employees.
Cesta de Natal
The way out when situations like these happen is to give a cesta de Natal. Translated as Christmas box, it’s a set of products put together in a decorated and given as an end-of-the-year gratification to employees. It can also be given as a general gift to friends’ families.
Their content - and the quality of each product - depends on who is giving it and to whom. It usually includes goods like panettones, some types of chocolate, a bottle of wine, dried fruits (like nuts), raisins and plums, toasts... some of them include jams, olive oils, jelly beans and other products as well.
Another Christmas tradition very common in Brazil is amigo secreto. Known in English as Secret Santa, it’s a gift exchange between a group of people. It works like this: the names of the people who are going to participate of the Secret Santa are written in pieces of paper, which are then folded and put in a kind of bag. Then, people randomly pick up a folded paper from the bag, and the name written in the paper you pick is the the person you have to give a gift to.
This is a very common practice among groups of friends and in some companies, but it can also happen in families, especially to reduce expenses. Nowadays, there are websites in which Secret Santa’s participants can subscribe and wait for the server to randomly choose the names of the gift receivers.
In case the name in the paper you picked up is not someone you know really well, it’s also possible that the participants make a list of the gifts they would like to receive. It’s important to know that Secret Santas also establish a general amount which must be spent on the gifts, to avoid situations like one person getting a present that is much more expensive - or cheaper - than the others.