The quantity of festas in Bahia is often remarked upon, often together in the same cliched breath along with "Terra da Alegria" ("Land of Happiness") or some such other similar hyperbole. Happy? That's debatable, certainly improbable given the widespread economic conditions here. But buoyant, resiliant, appreciative? Among the various traits and qualities which form the general ethos of Bahia, these three could be said to run wide, and deep.
And the buoyancy of the common people bubbles to the surface in part in the form of the festas populares (the largest and best known of which is of course Carnival), parties where the vicissitudes of life are temporarily cast off and old as well as young vão no pé (get up on their feet), moving in Bahian expression to the rhythms of Africa (albeit often layered under a sheen of sythesizers and pop stylings). The yearly cycle is generally considered to kick in with the Festa de Santa Bárbara, so that's where I'll begin...
(Note: In Portuguese the term festa profana is often used, in contrast to festa religiosa. "Profana" simply means a non-religious component of something religious (i.e., a festival), unlike the English-language connotation of something vulgar or irreverent.)
Festa de Santa Bárbara
December 4th. Santa Bárbara is syncretized with Iansã, wife of Xangô and goddess of the winds. A mass is celebrated in her honor at church Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (9 a.m.), and later (11:00 a.m.) a procession proceeds through Pelourinho to the Corpo de Bombeiros (Fire Station) in the Baixa dos Sapateiros, where participants are greeted by the sounding of sirens (Santa Bárbara is the patron saint of firefighters) and a grand carurú to be served to the public. From there everything moves on to the Mercado de Santa Bárbara where the stallholders have prepared their own carurús to be served to the public (5 p.m.), and where it is very, very crowded. Red and white are the colors to be worn. Epa hei!
The clip above is from the 1962 film Pagador de Promessas, which won the Palm d'Or in Cannes that year. The setting is the Escadaria de Carmo, leading up to the Igreja do Passo (Igreja de Santa Bárbara in the film) on the day of the festa.
Carurú at the Corpo de Bombeiros in the Baixa dos Sapateiros on December 4th
Saint Barbara's father was killed by lightning after having beheaded his daughter for becoming a Christian (so the story goes). That's the connection for the syncretization of Santa Bárbara with Iansã, Yoruba deity of lightning and storms.
Thus December 4th is the day for both, with a morning Mass in the Largo do Pelourinho, a good part of the congregated wearing red and white, Iansã's colors, calling "Epa hei!" to each other in the traditional greeting to Iansã.
Then follows a procession through Pelourinho -- lovely! -- to the firehouse in the Baixo dos Sapateiros (Santa Bárbara is their patron saint) and then on to the Mercado Santa Bárbara several blocks down the street, thus almost completing a circle on the map.
The Mercado Santa Bárbara is the scene of an extremely crowded party, which then spreads across the street and into Pelourinho, where it runs late into the night.
This festival begins with sweetness & light, devolving in the late afternoon into what can be rough -- especially for obvious tourists -- in the area around the bottom of the Largo do Pelourinho.
Maria Bethânia looks down from the Santa Casa da Misericórdia as the icon of Santa Barbara passes below
December 8th, Festa da Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia
You've got to hand it to the way Catholic feast days happen here in Salvador. For example, December 8th is the feast day of Nossa Senhora da Conceição -- Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception -- a putative commemoration of the day in 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared it to be dogma that Mary was conceived without the Original Sin resultant from Adam's partaking and sharing of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden, ecclesiastic understandings which would lead to theological pronouncements upon unbaptised babies condemned to hell (St. Augustine), later to be modified to eternity in limbo (as explicitly expressed by Pope Pius X, for whom the elementary school I attended was named), limbo later to be waved away by Pope Benedict XVI (presumably a great relief for a great many African, Asian, and Jewish baby souls, assuming St. Augustine doesn't have God's ear).
The cortejo of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia, opening the festa of December 8th in the Cidade Baixa
Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição