December 24th's midnight Christmas feast, known in Brazil as Ceia de Natal or Ceia de Consoada, normally features turkey or other poultry. But unlike North American Christmas dinners, where turkey is likely to be the only main course, Brazil's feast will almost always include at least one dish of salt cod (in Portuguese, bacalhau).
Eating salt cod on Christmas Eve is a tradition that came to Brazil from Portugal. In earlier times the 24th of December, as well as every Friday and a number of holy days, was a day on which the Roman Catholic Church forbade the consumption of meat. It was a day of fasting, or abstinence. Consequently, the evening meal on Christmas Eve was seafood-based, and salt cod was a natural choice for the main course as it was available throughout the year and was very cheap.
Today, of course, salt cod is anything but cheap, even here in Brazil. Nonetheless, the tradition of including bacalhau on the the Christmas buffet table is alive and kicking in this country. In the weeks leading up to Christmas most supermarkets will feature salt cod with large displays of various sizes and quality of this dried, salted and preserved fish. The supermarket aisles near the bacalhau display are redolent with the strong small of fish. And the more subtle and appetizing aroma of desalted and cooked bacalhau graces the dining table of most Brazilian homes on this night of family feasts.