Charlotte's Web

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Birthday Party Madness

25 Comments

Nearly four years ago, when we were offered the chance to leave England and move back to Germany, we leapt at the chance. At the time, we were poised to decide whether to send Lily to the village school or the posh little girls’ school ten minutes’ drive down the road. It was an invidious choice: either we’d be paying nearly 4000 pounds a year for an excellent and elite education, where she would have small classes, be able to learn to play an instrument, do art and theatre and meet lots of little girls from “nice” homes or we could expose her to something more normal, distinctly more mediocre and a lot cheaper. Despite being cash-strapped, we were leaning towards the former, because, English society informed us, private schools were the only way to guarantee our children university entrance and good jobs.

What a relief we didn’t have to make that decision. If we had gone for the posh school, this is the kind of madness we might have encountered. It’s an article from today’s Observer about how competitive parents are spending thousands on children’s birthday parties. Imagine if our child had gone to the posh school and we were having to send her to parties with chocolate fountains and Ooompa-loompa tossing Willy Wonkas. Imagine the shame she might have felt when her friends were invited home for some cake, colouring-in and pass the parcel. It must take enormous sanity and strength of conviction (not to mention a more limited bank balance) to refuse to take part in the madness.

The school our child attends here in Germany is the local state school, where she’s in a class of 26. The parents range from Porsche-driving, designer-wearing yummy mummies to parents with a lot of face furniture and tattoos, via book-reading foreigners with funny accents (that would be me). Children learn that society contains a mix, that not everyone is privileged, that not everyone has a car, let alone a house.

Birthday parties here are extremely sane. The kids arrive having had their hot lunch at home, so they are full and not overly interested in party food. I learnt this fast. The first party we gave in Germany was for Daisy’s second birthday. I was nervous to get it right, and egged on by my visiting mother-in-law, completely over-catered. The two-year-olds sat and stared bewildered at the enormous birthday tea we had concocted. They nibbled on a few things and then quickly disppeared to the playroom in the cellar to spend a happy two hours sliding down Daisy’s birthday present – a big plastic slide. I realised then that it was about doing rather than eating.

Every year, for both girls, I have to tone down my tendency to go beserk on the catering, and have now just about got it right. There’s always a birthday cake, a plate of homemade biscuits and possibly some muffins. And we always have tons of leftovers. My memory of birthday parties I attended was that it was all about the food – a huge, sanctioned, sweetie-fest in which I would eat and eat until I could fit nothing more in. But perhaps that was just me. Then I would go home and have an asthma attack from all the preservatives. What a fun child.

However, here in Germany, it’s all very modest. It’s expected that you only invite as many friends as the age your child is turning, so you never have to invite the whole class, which, given that all our birthdays fall in winter and have to be indoors, is a blessed relief. The focus is on the activities rather than the food. We try to find party games that are containable (our sitting-room isn’t big enough to run races in) and not overly competitive (to avoid crying). One day our family will be given credit for introducing pass-the-parcel to Germany. Our little guests love it, although at our latest party, the birthday girl unintentionally managed to win the gift, which nearly caused a riot. We always play a great German game called Flasche Trehen, literally Spin the Bottle, where the birthday girl spins a plastic bottle. She then opens the birthday present from the person at whom the bottle is pointing. This can take up to twenty minutes with uncoordinated bottle spinning, and present-opening and admiring, so it’s a big favourite with me. We always have some dancing and a bit of Musical Statues, and have been known to play “Pin the Crown on the Princess” or “Pin the Tail on the Easter Bunny”, depending on the theme of the party.

It’s an unwritten rule that you craft. This used to stress me out, until I developed a nifty line in princess crowns. My husband also photostats party theme-related pictures from the girls’ colouring-in books, which keep the little party-goers busy for ages. For the last birthday, I found a €2 box of beads at Woolworths, and we made necklaces. Bargain! We had eight happy princesses. I’ve also learnt not to fill up the time completely with games and crafts, because party-goers also like some free time to run around the house screaming. I imagine this ad-hoc wildness will feature more as Ollie grows up and starts to invite his little friends round for parties.

At a German party, one provides supper – something completely easy like pizza or sausages and chips – and then the children go home, clutching an extremely modest party pack that, at most, might contain a few sweets, a page of stickers and some bubbles. The emphasis is on play, on fun and on having a few nice things to eat.

My children have never been to a party with an entertainer, a magician or Willy Wonka and are not the worse for it. Modesty rules, rather than madness, and the children love it.

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

25 thoughts on “Birthday Party Madness

  1. The Costa Rican birthday party formula revolves almost exclusively around food: you serve cups of soda and plates of arroz con pollo (a chicken and rice dish) with refried beans and potato chips. Once everyone has been served and cleared, you dish up the ice cream cones. Once that’s over, you bring out the cake. There’s a piñata (filled with candy). Then you send the kids home with goody bags full of even more candy.

    Inviting eight of my daughter’s classmates to her birthday last month would have resulted in at least eight parents coming (and staying for the whole thing), and probably four or five younger siblings as well.

    I got out of it all by having a sleepover. She invited four friends, three one of whom stayed the night. We made our own pizzas, had small pieces of cake and ice cream. I put on a Barbie video and, other than that, they just entertained themselves with makeup and hairdos and such.

    I can’t wait until my younger daughter is old enough for the same – I tried to do a simple trip to a local zoo for her 5th last year, but it ended up extremely expensive because I misjudged the cost of having my husband’s cousin (a taxi driver) take the guests there and back!

    Sometimes it’s a distinct advantage being a foreigner – you can always go along with the local traditions if they work for you, but people are also less surprised if you do things a little differently!

  2. Sounds very similar to NZ parties, though we usually cram down the food and cake as well. And the party bags are getting a little ridiculous. There is a little ‘madness’ creep going on.

    When I was a girl, just having lemonade and lollies was such a big treat!

  3. Jen, if there’s a formula I think that’s great. German parties are also fairly formulaic, but, as you say, being the foreigners, we can alter it if we choose to. My one huge relief is that the parents don’t stay – they drop their kids and run! So do I when my children are invited.

    Megan, I’ve seen people post on the excess of party goody bags before. I feel very lucky that here it doesn’t exist at all. I hope it stays that way.

  4. I wish I could have come to one of your parties when I was a little girl Charl! They have all the right ingredients, in perfect quantities.
    And I do think it is considerate that the parents drop and run; I would have to find myself running two parties simultaneously..

  5. The keeping up with the Joneses thing sounds a bit scary. I like the idea of crafts rather than food though.

    I mostly remember getting to wear a long dress – very seventies in paisley and velvet – when I went to birthday parties. When did that go out of fasion? What do kids wear to parties now?

  6. WordPress keeps eating my replies. Third time lucky – and these replies are getting shorter! Just to say party madness is across the economic sphere here, not just in private schools. I remember too when parties were just pass the parcel with lemonade, cornflake crispies and butterfly cakes.

  7. Solnushka, in Germany it’s very casual – kids just come in whatever they are wearing that day. However, we often have dress-up parties, so they come in their dressing-up clothes.

    Kathryn, maybe whatever school Lily had gone to in England we would have encountered birthday party madness … I can’t say. I am happy to have landed in a society where the emphasis is more on the children having fun than the grown-ups impressing other grown-ups with the size of their bank accounts.

    Emma, you know you’re always welcome! I don’t mind the grown-ups turning up for a glass of wine at the end, but to have to look after them too would be far too draining for me.

  8. We introduced a new guideline to children’s parties. One child per year more or less (sometimes my daughter sneaked in one or two more), but as of ten years old, they are on their own. As of ten, they just tell us what they would like to do and with whom, and as long as it is financially viable, they’re responsible for the whole thing. So, it’s either a jaunt off to a movie matinee, a sleepover with a DVD marathon, or a (limited) run to the paint your own porcelain shop.

    You make it sound so easy with children birthdays in Germany. What you forgot to mention is that each birthday doesn’t necessarily have only one party. There’s the family birthday party with (broad definition) family. The children’s party on the weekend. The classroom party, where you are expected to provide cake or munchies. And then, in the case of my children, the after school daycare party. For someone like myself, who has never celebrated my birthday very much, four parties per child per year, was a strain. Thus the your-on-your-own rule…

  9. I saw an article not so long ago about children’s parties that said you could hire the top floor of Harrods, with as many toys to play with as the children could get their sticky hands on, for £10,000 a night. How’s that for total madness? I think the worst part of having children is the parties, so Germany sounds like a dream in that respect. Fortunately, now my son is twelve, he’s happier to accept a trip to the cinema with a few friends and a pizza!

  10. Lilalia and Litlove, I am looking forward to the movies and pizza phase of birthday parties. Altogether less complicated.

  11. I think there is a fair amount of birthday madness in Cape Town too. Luckily we are just far enough out to have more modest expectations. We specialise in treasure hunts, with lots of clues, that are simple for younger ones and get more complicated as they get older. The treasure can be chocolate coins or marbles or glitzy toy rings and replaces the party pack. Sandwiches and cake for tea and the parents get to chat and make their own tea, while I go round with the treasure hunt. Most parties here have a bouncy castle, but I haven’t succumbed to that yet.
    I like the craft element, defintiely more manageable with just eight princesses to crown!

  12. It sounds great that the German kids come to the party not all that interested in food — it’s so much better to associate fun parties with doing things rather than with eating!

  13. Trust me! Bouncy Castles for 30 5 year old boys is a MUST! I fall half way into alot of these categories, a foreigner, in the UK, with a son at a private school. As Ryan’s birthday falls in summer it is always a gamble but so far we have hit it lucky with the weather. Whilst the rest of his friends all had their parties at some venue with entertainment, a hot meal and a bulging party bag of items (not sweets) as well as birthday cake to take home. We had a bouncy castle and a blow up obstacle course, the kids blow up swimming pool, ice lollies and just sweets! The party bag…yes I did do that…but it was filled with sweets just to give the darling cherubs a bit longer stretch on that sugar high. The best compliment came from one of the boys who had a “spectacular party”, he said it was the “coolest party he had ever been to”. All they did was try and kill each other or drown each other on a sugar high… and yes some comments were passed about the fact that there was no meal or too much sugar…but hey, I am that weird foreigner 🙂

  14. Holland is also remarkably sane. We live in a flat so we do an activity for the birthday. Indoor playground, ice skating, etc. There is cake and something to eat like chips or whatever, nothing too extravagant.

    At school they get a big fuss made over them for the day and there must be party favours to hand out plus a cake for the teachers. Then we have a little party at home for the ‘home friends’. All very low-key.

  15. I had a bit of a nightmare with Kiko’s 1st birthday, a few months ago. It was hi-jacked by other mothers who were on a nasty gossip fest and would have criticised me whatever I did. I tried to have a simple morning tea but it was ruined, although I will resist saying exactly how. I still feel angry about it. I’m vowing that next year we will be doing things my way, which is the simple no-fuss way!

    I love the sound of your birthday parties. They remind me of the parties I went to as a child, in Bahrain and Shetland. I especially like the idea of themed colouring-in pages. I might have to steal that idea from you!

  16. Oooh, plug, the publishing exec sister in law is doing the book of the series I think.

  17. All the oneupsmanship parents put their children through is so ugly. Sounds like your daughter’s school strikes a nice balance.

  18. I’d much rather have gone to a party in which I got to sit and color — carefully, within the lines — than to a party full of scary Oompah Loompahs when I was a child (so glad I never had to go to one of those. I’d still be having nightmares).

  19. interesting to discover that other countries have maintained their sense of perspective over this and other aspects of parenting. maybe it’s because, in the uk, we follow the us paradigm in our celebrity-obsessed, consumerist culture!

  20. Um, ahh…well let’s see how I can put this. Oh, I’ll just come right out and say it. *sigh* I go completely overboard on my boys birthday parties. Granted I do it all myself.I’m not one for hiring people to do the things I love.

    I include them in the preparations as much as I can. Although I have cut back on the food, just cake and pizza, I can’t resist a theme party. The boys turned 8 this past November and we had 20 kids at the house… mainly in the front yard and in the garage. Yes, I am insane.But I love it! We have games and crafts and this year watched cartoons projected onto a big sheet.The treat bags are probably a bit too full of items, but they are hopefully long lasting treats. This year we made a little booklet about all the aliens from the boys favorite cartoon. The good part is once I throw one of these extravaganzas, I offer it up as a fund raiser for the schools silent auction night. My Harry Potter Party brought in almost $800 !

  21. Well, Doree, it’s got to be fun too, otherwise it’s not a party. My girls wouldn’t consider anything that Does. Not. Have. A. Theme. I love the idea of turning a party into a fundraiser. I think that’s brilliant.

    Mad Muthas, you’ve got to love the Germans for keeping it sane and as you say, keeping their perspective. But it doesn’t make for interesting reality TV …

    Emily, you would have been happy at an Otter party. We would not have scared you.

    LK, it’s the country really, but the school too of course. They really don’t go overboard. It’s very healthy and the children are easily satisfied.

    Anne, if there’s a TV series, then there’s got to be a book, no? Tie-ins, tie-ins, everywhere.

    Helen, sorry to hear about the hijacking of Kiko’s birthday. But feel free to nab the colouring-in concept. It’s a good one. One friend of mine took it a level further and had the kids stick their colouring-in onto their paper plate. Voila! Make and then eat off your own plate!

    Ash, sounds like Holland and Germany are pretty similar. We will be graduating to activities soon – my tolerance for screaming kids in my small living-space is diminishing (and made worse by the fact that they all have winter birthdays – back home in South Africa, this would NOT be the case).

    Tanya, it sounds like you and Doree are soulmates!

    Dorothy, it was astonishing to me to discover that they really weren’t too interested. I thought all kids were into sugar in a big, big way.

    Kit, I want to know about your treasure hunts for non-readers. Can you post about it? Or would that be revealing state secrets?

  22. We’ve always said our kids would go to Waldorf school, but now that my son is approaching school age, we’re concerned that he will grow up only with rich kids. Unfortunately in the US there is no state funding for these schools so they are funded via tuition and gifts only…this makes them quite like prep schools instead of the inclusive schools they were meant to be. What a conundrum…we want the best, but not at the expense of reality!

  23. If I ever have a child, I will seriously reconsider changing my citizenship from that of “United States,” to a member of the European Union.

  24. Pingback: We Love Baby! » Blogging Baby Sleepover for Thursday, February 8

  25. In Italy, you are expected to invite everyone in the child’s class. It is a huge faux pas to invite only a certain number of them. Plus both parents of each invitee also attend. Plus the birthday child’s grandparents on each side as well as various aunts, uncles and cousins. Basically, your house can’t fit all those people so birthday parties always end up happening in rented space.

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