It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything, and with good reason. Most of my time over the past month and a half has been dedicated to putting on a Brazilian birthday party for my three-year-old daughter (and recovering from it). This is an effort equivalent to orchestrating a medium sized wedding reception.
For my daughter’s first birthday, we put on a dinner party for our friends. There was one other little girl (daughter of our friends). The two infants mostly slept through the event. I didn’t even get my daughter a gift. Still reeling from the pregnancy/birthing/working-mother experience, I figured her gift was LIFE.
For her second birthday, we had two little friends and their parents over for hors d’oeuvres. I made “gourmet” children’s dishes, of which they ate none. Instead, they stuffed themselves with Pirate’s Booty. I baked sad-looking Elmo cupcakes, but sprung for a professionally designed cake, reluctantly peeling the forty dollars from my wallet. After the cake, we all hopped in cabs to Bryant Park and went around the carrousel about 20 times. She was thrilled. She talked about it for weeks. Mostly about the three helium balloons we had gotten for her.
But when we knew we were going to be moving to Brazil, it was explained to me that I could no longer get away with my shady excuses for birthday parties. The children’s birthday party in Brazil, especially Sao Paulo, means something. It is your statement about yourself to the world, or at least the city. I figure that the origin of this tradition is historical. Decades ago, when most Brazilians either owned or worked farms and plantations, they needed to produce a heap of kids to help out in the fields. So at some point, they were marrying them off about once a year and executing full-blown celebrations each time. That event-planning DNA must have carried through the generations, and now, the two offspring that Brazilian families, on average, produce these days are the benefactors (or the victims) of that gene. A gene that now plays itself out in annual “grandes festas de aniversário.”
Or perhaps… the Brazilians just like to party.
So, we began the planning months ago, before we even left NYC. On the advice of my sister-in-law, I loaded up at Party City on birthday and Disney Princess paraphernalia (not easily accessible in Brazil, I was told. At least not the good stuff).
Two bins full of birthday supplies, and two large cardboard envelopes containing life-sized Disney Princesses, went on a ship to our new homeland. I checked it off my list. Birthday party – done. Check.
Little did I know. It was only the beginning.
There are three ways you can orchestrate a child’s birthday here in Sao Paulo.
- You can hire a company to put it on for you at your choice of location. This can range from a team of about five or six to play music, organize games and pass out hot dogs, cheese balls, cheese bread, cheese-on-a-stick, etc., to a team of twenty plus with walkie-talkie headsets that will orchestrate the multi-room activities of your mansion and provide valet parking.
- You can have it at one of the hundreds of locations specifically designed for children’s birthday parties, known as “Buffet Infantils.” (Example: Peekabo Buffet Infantil)
- You can do the whole thing yourself – my choice (fool). This option is only possible if you have Brazilian relatives and/or friends to help you. My Brazilian sister-in-law was hooked into the whole birthday party scene. Sweetness.
Regardless of how you choose to conduct the event, there are obligations that you MUST abide by. I attempted to side-step a few of these. I received reactions such as “Well, all right, if you don’t want to have a beautiful party for your daughter, that might work,” as well as the straight forward, “That’s not how we do it here in Brazil.” My responses included various versions of “But why can’t I have an American birthday party?”
Finally, my husband put it in terms that I could understand. Expectations. He explained that people expected certain things at a child’s birthday party. If these things weren’t there, then the guests would be unhappy. They might even stuff their gifts back into their Gucci bag and slip out the back before the cake was cut. Being a firm believer that managing expectations is the key to making practically anything successful, I gave in.
So, if you happened to be interested, here is the list of absolute, bottom-line requirements for a child’s birthday party in Sao Paulo, Brazil (and quite possibly across the entire country):
I thought that we would just put a small round table in the center of the room (the room that we were renting for the party) to hold the ridiculously expensive cupcake tower so that everyone could admire the investment I had made. And then call it a day. Oh, no, no, no. The design of the Sweet Table is on the same level of importance for the birthday party as is the set design for a Broadway performance. It consists of hundreds of sweets, strategically placed around the other decorations. But most importantly NO ONE TOUCHES the sweet table until the birthday candles have been blown out. No one. An interesting objective when you have thirty or more little children running around wild and free.
Two critical components of the party live on the Sweet Table for the extent of the event:
A Brigadeiro is a condensed milk based candy found at each and every birthday party. There are often other sweets on the table as well, like Beijinho de Coco (also condensed milk based) and Flor de Moça (also condensed milk based) and Copinho de Moça (also condensed milk based). However, apparently, if guests walk into your party and see that there are no Brigadeiro on that sweet table… well, forget it. They walk right back out without even an “Ola.”
Now, I like sugar as much as the next guy, but I’m not a big fan of Brigadeiro, and my daughter will have nothing to do with it. So the one thing I regret about the party is that I didn’t have little boxes or bags for people to take home Brigadeiro. Because despite the fact that we agonized over calculating the Brigadeiro/guest ratio, and worried endlessly that we might not have enough to go around, at the end of the night there were about a hundred Brigadeiro left behind. Over the course of the next few days I tried to rid myself of it – passing it out to doormen and children in the neighborhood, forcing my husband to take it to work. Whenever anyone came over I put a plate of Brigadeiro in front of them. But each time I turned around there was more Brigadeiro, as if they were multiplying. I still have a few trolling around the apartment somewhere, hiding behind doors and under cabinets.
Standing amongst the sweets are the Barbie-style dolls (for boys’ parties it’s foam creatures). I wasn’t a big fan of the doll idea. There was something creepy about dolls staring at me while I ate my Copinho de Moça. Also, I had seen first-hand, as well as in pictures, set-ups with armies of dolls covering birthday Sweet Tables that would make a child’s head spin. The only word that came to mind was… overkill. I hadn’t purchased any Disney Princess dolls before I left, and I certainly wasn’t going to make the investment to have them sent from overseas. So I thought I was going to test-out of this requirement. But lucky, lucky, lucky me… My sister-in-law, the brains behind the Brazilian elements of the birthday, had a friend with a whole box of Disney Princess dolls she would lend us. Thank goodness, she was as opposed to overkill as I was, and orchestrated it all wonderfully. In the end, the Sweet Table was actually quite lovely, dolls and all.
Aside from the Sweet Table, there are a few other planning prerequisites if you don’t want to disappoint.
The Brazilian birthday party doesn’t rely on the children to be amused by a simple Pinata or by smacking each other in the face with balloons and blowouts (all of which we had anyway). Nope. It involves providing some type of physical-activity equipment. Jumpy castles, ball pits, trampolines… From a guest’s perspective, this is brilliant. By the time your child has spent an entire evening jumping and eating sugar, he or she instantly fall into an 10 to 12 hour coma the minute his or her little head hits the pillow. If you conduct the party at a “buffet infantil,” they have multi-levels of child entertainment. An invitation to one of these parties means your kid will sleep well for nights to come.
Having organized the event myself (not without help from family, of course), I selected only a jumpy castle, keeping in line, of course, with the princess theme. However, I was lucky, because the room was in my sister-in-law’s building and adjacent to a small private playground with swings and a slide, so there was more than enough physical activity to be had. The jumpy castle was quite cheap, and came with a guy who stood there and made sure the kids didn’t kill themselves, or each other (which was great, because I didn’t actually have a plan for that scenario).
In a country where couples rarely entertain their children at home on their own, why would they want to do so at your party? While the nannies are off eating hot dogs and drinking Guarana, the party entertainers will make sure that those kids, not risking their lives on unregulated jumping apparatus, remain occupied. This element is also quite inexpensive. Four hours of Cinderella and Prince Charming greeting people, making balloon animals and doing hair cost less than the cupcake tower.
6. Mini Hot Dogs
While the one thing I did insist on was having adult food for the adult guests, mini hot dogs are a must-have for the kids and nannies. I shudder to think what might happen if mini hot dogs are not an option on the party menu. The movie Children of the Corn comes to mind. Luckily, I have a brother-in-law in the restaurant biz who took care of the hot dog service, so there was no blood-shed that evening.
With all of this activity, you may be wondering how on earth do these productions end. The finale involves the child being paraded around, in a costume, as everyone chants a Brazilian, ritualistic sounding version of Happy Birthday. He or she is then dropped behind the cake, with parents in tow, bearing the wide, terrified eyes of someone about to be sacrificed. He or she is coaxed into blowing out the candles and everyone makes a mad dash to grab… Brigadeiro.
Would I do it again? Before this birthday extravaganza, my daughter would have been delighted with a couple cupcakes and a few balloons. In fact, when asked what her favorite part of her birthday party was, she indeed responded, “The balloons.” But now I’m afraid we’ve set her birthday party expectations too high.
So, to quote Dr. Suess, “Ask me tomorrow, …but not today.” Definitely not today.