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People watch fireworks exploding over Copacabana beach during New Year celebrations at the Pavao Pavaozinho slum in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 1, 2014.PILAR OLIVARES/Reuters

This past year was not a good one for Max Figueiredo. His father died, he had work troubles, he was depressed. And so in the late afternoon of Dec. 31, he headed down into the choppy green waves on Copacabana beach clutching a big bunch of white gladiola: an offering to the goddess Iemanja, the supreme deity in the Candomble religion.

Mr. Figueiredo, a 45-year-old television producer, is not a practitioner of the Afro-Brazilian religion; in fact, he is a devout Catholic. But for something this important – ensuring a better new year – he was taking no chances. "Good work, good lovers, new friends, money – for this, we Brazilians give a gift to the goddess."

Brazilians celebrate New Year's with a heady mix of devotion, superstition and festive zeal, and nowhere in the country do they make a bigger deal of the occasion than in this city. Some 2 1/2 million people are expected on the beach in Copacabana at midnight for a massive fireworks display, combined with a mass display of devotion. City officials are especially anxious to have the event go well this year, as a test run for the World Cup in six months' time.

Starting at dawn on the last day of the year, people flocked down to the beach – all along the white sand strips that border the city, but especially in Copacabana. They wore new, white clothes and carried offerings to Iemanja. As many as two-thirds of the people of Rio are Afro-Brazilians, although only a small number are active participants of Candomble or similar faiths, which derive from religions brought by African slaves starting in the 1500s.

They bring simple bouquets like Mr. Figueiredo or more elaborate wooden boats loaded with mirrors, perfume, bracelets, food and cash. They wade into the waves and push the boats toward the sea. If they tip and sink, Iemanja is pleased and accepts the offering and will grant the hearts' desire of the petitioner – but if the offering comes back, the goddess is dissatisfied.

"She knows what I need," said Rita de Cassia, a 51-year-old domestic worker who came to the beach from a low-income suburb in the far fringes of Rio, prepared to camp out for a full 24 hours. "Health, money, a better world – at midnight, I will jump over seven small waves to receive these things."

Jose Carlos Gentil, cultural director of the Brazilian Federation of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion, said the sea is sacred because its waters symbolize the birth of human life and sustenance; the new year is born from it, he said, and seven is a sacred number. "It's a sign of respect, of homage. Seven movements in the water: That's the tradition."

It's also a bit of a nightmare for Allan Siqueira, 26, one of the preposterously muscled, shorn-headed, polarized-sunglassed lifeguards posted along the beach. The bombeiros cover every 400 metres in the day time at New Year's, but on the night shift, the coverage is doubled: People in long white robes, many of whom can't swim, wade into the water, beside revellers who have had a fair bit of beer or cachaca spirits, and there are inevitable accidents. "We do 30 or 40 rescues each on the New Year's even night shift," Mr. Siqueira said. "It's nuts out here."

Other New Year's traditions have less obvious ties to religion. Underwear, for example, is key: The colour you wear determines your big wish for the next year. Pink if you hope for love, blue for health, yellow for wealth. Or red, if your heart is set on steamy sex.

Next, food. At midnight, Brazilians eat 12 grapes, one to bring good fortune in each month of the year to come. Then they take three seeds from a pomegranate, place them on their tongues, then in a twist of paper and carry them around in their wallets to ensure prosperity. (Since single pomegranates are selling for $14 a piece in downtown Rio Tuesday, this tradition seems as likely to take money out of one's wallet as put it in.) On the last day of the year, Brazilians eschew poultry – some people have a broader interpretation which rules out any creature that can walk backward.

By mid-day, the shoreline across Rio was littered with roses and other flowers tossed to the goddess. Rio's ambitious mayor, Eduardo Paes, has of late been on a campaign against litter – and unleashed police squads to slap large fines on anyone who drops some much as a Popsicle wrapper, which has struck many as misdirected effort in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world. The beach worshippers, however, were exempt. A few days ago, Mr. Paes signed a law named for Axe, the supernatural power in Afro-Brazilian religions; under the new regulation, offerings to deities don't count as litter.

Brazil's last census, in 2010, found that only 0.3 per cent of the population practise Candomble or other Afro-Brazilian faiths, but Ms. de Cassia said the numbers are in truth far higher. Many who follow Catholic or Evangelical faiths out of social pressure also secretly worship the goddess, she said. And indeed Iemanja is often fused with the Virgin Mary, a tradition that stems from an era when Catholic clergy barred slaves from practising their own religion.

On New Year's, Iemanja does not lack for devotees. In the posh neighbourhood of Leblon, women whose giant designer sunglasses covered most of their faces took flowers to the water; at the far end of the beach, working-class families in mismatched swimsuits carried boats into the waves.

"It's a tradition that became an enchantment for people," said Mr. Gentil. "People find it beautiful, seeing the beach full, taking flowers to the sea, jumping the seven waves. It pleases the soul. It's like beginning again. People who don't follow the religion think 'If it doesn't do any good, it won't do any harm.'"