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Simple Celebrations

Taking the Hype Out of Birthday Parties

 Recently I read about parents who spend thousands of dollars on their children’s birthday parties. Llamas, helicopter rides, visits from sports celebrities or other extreme celebrations are things that neither I nor my bank account can muster. With five kids, we’d be in the poor house pretty quickly. And then, what would they expect for graduations and weddings?!

But economics aside, it’s still pretty easy for me to get carried away, even if it’s only my time and effort (and that of my loved ones) that it costs me. Like the time I couldn’t find a dragon piñata for my son’s Knight in Shining Armor party? After hunting in every store in town, I stayed up late one night, gluing hundreds of tissue paper scales onto a long-necked dinosaur while my husband spray painted cardboard wings with real 14K gold. Yes, it was beautiful, but then they hacked it up with a stick.

And then there was the time I spent an entire day preparing a four-car train cake with buttercream frosting made from scratch. Or how about the time when my mother (God bless her!) spent hours bent over the sewing machine, transforming an old black-and-white striped blanket into a dozen pirate shirts for the bold young men coming to walk the plank. Shiver me timbers! No wonder my husband starts to get a little nervous when a birthday approaches.

So I proclaim, “Let’s get back to basics!” (And my husband heaves a great sigh of relief!) A birthday is a celebration of a child’s life. But it is not license to do it up as big as possible, no matter the cost to pocketbook, calendar and family sanity. Let’s simplify birthday celebrations and bring joy back to parents, kids and guests.

Choose a Theme, but Don’t Go Overboard

If your kid is crazy about Dora, Bob or the Movie Character of the Week, feel free to buy a few napkins or a cute disposable tablecloth. But you don’t have to purchase everything that Hallmark makes.

Supplement with solid color plates and cups, which are infinitely less expensive and a little more restful to the senses.

Though life-size cutouts and inflatable critters are fun, they are not necessary to life. A few streamers and balloons will make things festive. Let’s face it— the kids probably won’t notice anyway.

You Don’t Have To Feed the Masses

In the old days a birthday party included cake, punch and ice cream. Set a new trend by serving classic refreshments. Make sure to choose a time when a meal won’t be expected, like mid-morning or after lunch. Note in the invitations that “cake and ice cream will be served,” so no child comes famished and expecting a full meal.

Serve a Cute Cake

A cake decorating class is not necessary to bake someone happy. And neither is an elaborate and expensive bakery dessert. Don’t even think of baking it from scratch or making that buttercream! (Trust me on this one.) A decorated sheet cake from the grocer’s bakery is pretty inexpensive these days. Peruse their catalog—often they feature character cakes that any kid will love.

It’s also super easy to make one of your own. A few bucks will buy you a mix and canned frosting. Choose a few small toys that match your theme to use as cake toppers and wash and dry them well. I love to raid my kids’ stash of Playmobil. Once the cake is baked and cooled, craft a scene for the toys with frosting and assorted candies. Candy rocks and pull-apart licorice are great accents. Use your imagination and be sure to let the birthday kid help. Set the toys in place and you’ll have a cute and simple cake ready to go.

Limit Your Guest List

Help your child recognize that we can have many friends, but we don’t need to invite them all to every event. THAT is a hard thing to learn. Remember creating the guest list for your wedding? Don’t be guilt-tripped into thinking that you absolutely have to invite every kid you cross paths with. You’ll drive yourself and your child nuts. Decide on how many before you talk about who to include.

Consider varying the type of guest list each year. You might invite three families for a barbecue one year and have a multi-age celebration. Have five kids from the soccer team the next year. Maybe another year the birthday kid can invite a buddy for a sleepover or a trip to the amusement park.

Be tactful, however, and don’t broadcast the party details to those whose feelings might get hurt. Likewise, when your child doesn’t get invited to a friend’s party, remind him that it doesn’t have to be viewed as an affront. We can’t be all places all the time.

Watch the Clock

Two to three hours is a great amount of time for a party. You don’t need to sign on for an all-day shindig. You’ll find that the time will go quickly. Consider dividing the party into chunks of time featuring play, refreshments, piñata and gifts. Having guests depart while they’re still enjoying themselves is a much better alternative to meltdown endings.

Let the Kids Play

Resist the urge to fill every minute with games and activities. Some of our best parties have been when the kids just had plenty of room to run around outside. If your yard can’t swing it, consider a party at the park.

Talk to your child beforehand about what things he thinks his guests would enjoy and have some organized games as backup.
Feel free to let kids be kids. Provide supervision. Let them enjoy one another’s company.

If you plan a simple party, you may not be the talk of the town, but you’re sure to have some energy left by the time it starts, let alone when it ends. Your child and her friends will enjoy some simple fun and the day will be filled with laughter, love and lots of good company. Let the festivities begin!

Jessica Fisher is a wife, mother and freelance writer. She is also group activity leader for her husband and six kids.

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