Saturday, April 17, 2010

You Say It’s Your Birthday?

Kids’ birthdays are cause for celebration, BIG celebration. Imagine if you will a large pack of children ranging from toddlers to pre-teens running amok, fueling their already energetic escapades with candy by the handfuls available from tables scattered throughout the party room that looks like it’s ready for a reception (balloon centerpieces on each table-clothed table). Parents sit around chatting and sipping beer or soda. Lots of finger food as well.

Our experience has been that kids’ birthday parties are held on weekend nights and are for the birthday kid’s friends and their siblings and parents from school, work and apartment building as well as extended family. Every apartment has a party room for rent on the patio level of the building so this is the logical place to hold such a large gathering since there are usually over fifty people in attendance. Birthday themes are chosen and matched to invitations, and fairly elaborate backdrops rented (Backyardigans, ‘Cars,’ Ben 10, and Super Heroes are the ones we’ve witnessed personally). A few of the more extravagant parties have included a food train (a train that has different ‘cars’ with popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, and special smoking drinks (dried ice added to food-colored sprite – a huge hit with our kids) offered up by hired help and a bouncy house rental.

Another discovery is that the end times listed on invitations are totally irrelevant. We went to a birthday party last Sunday night (yes, Sunday night), which was, according to the invitation, from 5-7 at Pizza Hut. We were the first to leave at 7pm. No one else showed any inclination in leaving any time soon after us. There were close to forty kids and at least as many adults. A one-year old birthday party we attended in our building complex raged on til the wee hours and the next morning looked more like the scene of a college kegger than a celebration of a one-year old. Beer cans (adults) strewn alongside what remained of the party’s decorations and balloons (sugar-crazed kids run amok way after their normal bedtime). Even last night’s celebration (4-year old Thiago’s bash, listed from 5-9) was going strong after Brian and I headed to bed at 10:30.

Parents easily spend one thousand reais (that’s over US$600) for such parties. Invitations, space, backdrop and decoration rental, food, drink, hiring someone to organize the kids for games, etc. It adds up quickly. So why spend this much on a birthday party?

Our take (as heavily influenced by Brian’s social scientist nature): Social networking and bonding, which the parents are well aware is a key feature of their kids' future success here in Brazil.

So Happy Birthday to You! (Here’s the Portuguese version of Happy Birthday, same tune, many more words, with singing and clapping, and faster with each verse)

Parabéns a você,
Nesta data querida.
Muita(s) felicidade(s),
Muitos anos de vida.

Hoje é dia de festa,
Cantam as nossas almas.
Para o/a menino/a (insert name of birthday boy/girl here),
Uma salva de palmas.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Good Friday

‘Jeito’ means the way. But there’s another word, jeitinho, which literally means the little way. In other words, jeitinho means a way around. Brazilians are excellent at finding ways around what seem like impenetrable walls. Historically, using jeitinho has been key to avoiding persecution (of religion, of music, of dance). Slaves couldn’t practice their native religions? Meld Catholic names with African deities and you have one of many Afro-Brazilian cults like Condomblé. Slaves couldn’t rebel against their owners? Create a martial art disguised as an acrobatic dance and call it capoeira. There’s another way to see this flexibility. Brazilians don’t necessarily see a contradiction in considering themselves Catholic while attending Afro-Brazilian cult ceremonies.

On paper, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world but looks and numbers can be deceiving. This country is Catholic culturally but not so religiously. People attend weddings and baptisms but seldom find themselves in church otherwise. Brian, who has been coming and going between the US and Brazil for the last fifteen years, says that Minas Gerais, a politically and socially conservative state, is the exception to Brazil’s lazier faire attitude towards religion. It is the one place where we have seen people attending mass on a regular basis, both in Belo Horizonte and out in the countryside.

Throughout Brazil, the Catholic Church has been steadily losing out to the more charismatic Evangelical churches. This is especially true in the poorer areas. Many people in favelas (shanty towns) turn to Evangelicalism as a way of rising above the drug wars prevalent in their neighborhoods, and even, potentially, getting out. The popularity of these churches is not surprising given that they offer social services and are available 24-hours a day to their congregations.

Easter is two days away and the way I know this is that all the stores have been taken over by Nerf football-sized chocolates hanging from arches throughout and that the city seems deserted because it’s a long weekend for most people. Yet, going back to that ‘flexibility,’ Good Friday seems to be the one day a lot of Brazilians seem to honor their Catholic roots. Unlike our defiantly unreligious friends who had us over for a barbeque today, most ‘Catholics’ don’t eat meat today! So Happy Easter to you all, whether you believe or just enjoy the chocolate.

**Note: Not being a Catholic (I'd say I'm border-line Agnostic/Atheist), I didn't realize that Good Friday is much more significant to Catholics (Brazilian or otherwise) than Easter Sunday. As a Catholic woman put it, "We Catholics love to suffer." (or was it that Catholics love suffering? Hmmm)