Parties And Gift Giving In Panama—What To Give And How Much To Spend

Hello everyone, 

Last night I received an email from a reader and friend, asking a question that would probably stump most people moving here from a foreign land. How much should you give at a birthday party? She and her family just recently settled down in Panama, and already, her daughter was invited to a birthday party for a classmate.

If you don’t have kids, don’t worry, I’ll get to adult party gift giving a little later in this article. For now, let’s stick with the kids.

First, it’s important to know that in Panama, it’s very common for kids to have birthday parties at school. Where I come from, this would be forbidden. Sure, you might bring a gift for your best friend if you found out it was his or her birthday, but you’d never see an all-out fiesta. Here it’s totally the norm. And with four kids, it seems someone is always needing to take a gift to school.

What should you give at a party?

With my sons, in Kindergarten (a class that’s mixed with Pre-K and has about 30 kids in the room), you can imagine how many birthdays take place. It seems there’s at least two a month, sometimes more often. Some school parties consist of just snacks, a cake, and canastitas (goodie bags), while some even include a piñata.

Speaking of canastitas, if you ever throw a birthday party here, whether in your house, at a party salon, or in school, you have to have canastitas. They’re expected. The kids will be very sad if they don’t receive one.

Goodie bags are a must in Panama

So, when your kid is invited to a party, what kind of gift do you give, or how much should you give in cash or on a gift card? Most Panamanian parents will write on the invitation what they’d like to receive for their child. Here’s what you might see:

  • Lluvia de Sobres, which translates to “Rain of envelopes”. This means they’d like to receive cash. 
  • Talla 12 “Size 12,” or whatever size the child is, means they’d like to receive clothes.
  • GC might be written to mean gift card, or they’ll just write (or place a sticker) of the store they’d like to receive a gift card from. Poppy’s is a popular kids clothing store here, similar to a Gymboree. We’ve received several invitations with Poppy’s stickers on them. 

You never just see the word “toys” written on an invitation, or juguetes in Spanish. I’m old fashioned in the way that I usually buy a toy for the kid. Marlene and I argue about this all the time. She likes to stick with what the card says, but I remember being a kid and excitedly opening presents to find only clothes. It sucked! I just wanted a Transformer (or was it a Go-Bot?) or a new G.I. Joe action figure (never a doll, never!) or even a pack of freakin’ Garbage Pale Kid trading cards (those were awesome). 

Who wants clothes? None of the boys do, I’m pretty sure. I doubt the kid is shouting over mom’s shoulder as she writes out the invitations, “Please, mom, not toys again…just write size 12!”

The look on Nico’s face would be totally different if this guitar had been a pack of underwear

Plus, I imagine all the other parents bringing size 12 clothes. All kids want at least one toy for their birthday. So, if I tick off a parent, but put a smile on a kid’s face, I think it was well worth it.

If you’d rather just give a gift card or participate in the rain of envelopes and give cash, this is the way it’s played out in Panama. You have to consider how much the parent is spending on the party. If it’s a simple house party or a party taking place at school, spending $10 on a gift or giving $10 cash (or gift card) should be fine.

If it’s a party at an expensive party salon, at Chuck-E-Cheese, or something like that, where you know the parents are spending quite a bit of money on each kid invited, it’s a good idea to spend/give at least $25.

A party at this place in Punta Pacifica isn’t gonna be cheap

Now, if we’re talking about a quinceaños (sweet 15), that’s a little bit different. A quince is a very important time in a young lady’s life, practically as big a deal as a wedding. Imagine that TV show “My Super Sweet 16” with a little bit of salsa and tipico dancing thrown into the mix. Everyone dresses very formally (unless there’s a different kind of theme) and you should give at least $50. Really, anywhere from $50-$100, depending on your relationship with the girl and your level of comfort (income level). Aunts and uncles will probably give at least $100, maybe more. Friends of family will usually spend somewhere between $50-$80. 

Back to kids’ parties. It’s probably a good idea to use this space to mention a few things you should be ready for if attending a birthday party in Panama.

1. Where is everybody? The party will usually start out empty. Being tardy is a Panamanian thing (sorry all my Panamanian friends, but you know it’s true). If you arrive at 2pm, the exact time printed on the invitation, don’t be alarmed if you’re the only guest there. People will show up, but probably at around 3 (or later).

2. Just pretend you know the song – Happy Birthday will be sung in both English and Spanish (this is very common in Panama, unless somehow you find yourself at an all-American or English-only party). So, during the Spanish version of the song, you’ll need to figure out something to do to make yourself not stick out in the crowd. Fidget with your camera, or bend down to fix your kid’s hair, haha.

Being the one behind the camera is a good way to camouflage yourself

Or, better yet, just learn the words to the Spanish version. Check out this Kidpats video we put together about birthday parties in Panama. During the singing of Happy Birthday, I added Spanish subtitles to help people learn. Check it out by clicking HERE.

3. You want me to do what? At Panamanian parties being animated by a clown or host, there’s a good chance you’ll get called out for a game. It happens to me every time. Gringos tend to be part of the entertainment sometimes. One host thought it was hilarious that I didn’t speak Spanish and kind of picked on me through the whole party.

Here I am, unwillingly participating

Honestly, at just about every party I’ve been to, I’ve ended up as one of the non-volunteering volunteers to play the games with the kids.

Even at a baby shower (there where was beer in the bottle though, and I won, so it was all good)

If this happens to you, don’t get upset. Be happy to be included in the festivities. Just laugh it off and have a good time.

4. I’m starvin’ ova hea! Never go to a party hungry. Most Panamanian parties will include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), plantains, potato salad, etc. At some you’ll find only appetizer treats. Usually, the food won’t be served until well into the party. This happens for two reasons. The first, as I mentioned earlier, most people show up late. Second, once the food is served (as with most parties anywhere) people start to disappear. So don’t go to a party thinking, “Oh I’ll just eat at the party.” Do yourself a favor and eat a little something before you leave the house. 

Moving on to adult parties. At an adult birthday party, you’d probably want to spend between $20-$30, unless it’s someone very close to you, then you can spring for a little more. Same goes for cash or a gift card. Here’s a tip. With an adult party, you might want to go with a present so it’s not so obvious how much you spent. Unless, of course, you’re ready to give $50 cash, then I’m sure you’d look alright, lol.

Weddings cost a lot, so it’s polite to give a nice gift

Weddings are a lot like a quinces. Spending wise, you’d follow the same rules. One thing you need to know about weddings here, is it’s customary to give cash. It’s not like in the U.S. where people show up with gift wrapped toasters, blenders, and foot massagers. 

On a random side note (you know me and my tangents), Marlene and I once received a wedding gift that was re-gifted to us. How did we know? When we unwrapped it and opened the box, we found a beautiful card, wishing our friends the best of luck in their marriage. It was a note to them from the original purchaser. Apparently they’d never opened the gift and just passed it on to us. We had a good laugh and never told our friends.

Be ready to dance at weddings too!

Back to the wedding gifts. At all weddings in Panama, somewhere near the entrance to the reception, you should see some sort of envelope box, usually a fancy contraption with a slit at the top. Just put your cash-filled card there. 

On a final note, I’ve also received emails about dinner parties and whether it’s necessary to take a gift with you if invited to one. Panamanians are very fun-loving people and it seems there’s always a friendly get together, which means the hosts are spending money on food and drinks. 

So, the answer is yes, if you’re invited to a party at someone’s home, for whatever reason, it’s always nice to bring either a bottle of wine, or some sort of dessert. Just stop by the supermarket and grab an apple pie if you’re not sure what to bring. 

Or…the absolute best…pick up one of those chocolate cakes from the Rey supermarket, the ring shaped one. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten. Love that thing.

I’m talking about these chocolate cakes!

Man, now I need to go eat some more sugar-free Jello (they really need to make Rey-supermarket-chocolate-ring-cake-sugar-free Jello). Seriously. 

Well, I think that about covers it. As always, I invite readers to write in with their comments and anything I may have missed.

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