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Goddess in focus at Rio's new year celebration

More than 2 million people are expected at Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach this New Year's Eve to honor the African goddess, Yemanja. For the first time, the festival will be televised across the nation.

Small, white paper boats bounce on the waves off of Copacabana beach. They are adorned with corn and coins, mirrors, combs and candles that slide back and forth. After a few minutes, the floating shapes sink below the surface of the water, the candles go out and fireworks shoot up to the stars.

Every year in Rio de Janeiro, more than two million people gather on Rio de Janeiro's most famous beach for the tribute to the sea goddess of Yemanja.

Believers send offerings out to sea to honor goddess Yemanja

Believers send offerings out to sea to honor goddess Yemanja

Most Cariocas - as Rio's locals are called - dress in white on the last day of the year, as a symbol for freedom.

African gods and Catholic saints

Brazil is the country with the highest black population outside of Africa. For them, as well as other Brazilians, the festival at Copacabana is a continuation of Brazil's tradition of syncretism, whereby African gods and Catholic saints are honored at the same time.

But, the event also has a modern touch: Just after midnight, some 24 tons of fireworks will be fired into the air over a period of 15 minutes. Some 50 pyrotechnic experts will set off fireworks across the bay in front of Copacabana beach, as onlookers observe from the shore.

This year the event is due to be broadcast across Latin America and the United States for the first time by the American television network Fox.

Fireworks light up Copacabana beach as a masked reveller looks on

The Copacabana New Year's Eve fireworks are well known across Latin America

The event is popular with tourists around the world. Over 750,000 visitors - most from Argentina, the US and other Brazilian cities - have booked accommodation in Rio.

According to the city's hotel and gastronomy association, SindRio, that number represents an increase of 15,000 visitors compared to last year.

A big year for Brazil

"The World Cup has definitely increased the interest in Rio", says the tourism commissioner of the city, Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello. "Those that can't come to the World Cup or the Olympics, often visit the city ahead of time," he observed.

According to Rio's tourism office, some 600,000 foreign guests are expected in the city in June for the football World Cup.

And, Copacabana itself has played host to a number of mass events: Over 2 million Catholics journeyed to the beach last July for World Youth Day to greet Pope Francis.

Some two million Catholics packed the beach for World Youth Day earlier this year

Some two million Catholics packed the beach for World Youth Day earlier this year

But on New Year's Eve, focus turns to the sea goddess Yemanja, from the Afro-brazilian religion Candomble. To please the goddess, who it is said decides over life and death, the locals throw white roses into the surf, light candles, and pray to the heavens.

Then the good wishes will rise up into the sky, which is lit up with fireworks, and the live music and dancing can begin. 2014 is set to start - Brazilian-style.

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