Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Festive kids’ birthday parties start with colorful traditions

This is a busy month at our house; three of our four children were born in October. This means lots of celebrating and potentially lots of extra expenses. Our life is plenty complicated and our budget amply tight, even without hosting three birthday parties in one month. So we aim to keep things as simple as possible, while creating traditions and rituals to honor our children.

Drawing on tradition helps our children anticipate their birthday celebrations, giving them something to look forward to year after year. Our family’s traditions are designed to give our children a sense of stability and continuity. What’s more, creating traditions teaches them that, while gifts may be a part of their celebration, presents are not the focus of the entire day.

We’re still building these traditions, and we have plenty of room to embrace more as they grow older. Right now, the day of their birth starts with a special-request birthday breakfast, served on a special breakfast-in-bed tray. Anything goes, though they tend to stick to typical breakfast fare, with a few twists. Our soon-to-be 6-year-old asked for chocolate chip banana bread in the shape of a butterfly (easy enough to do by using a butterfly cookie cutter on an individual slice of bread) and not-from-concentrate juice, for example.

After breakfast, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the front door (made with a straw form and 170 balloons—that haven’t been blown up) as a signal to all passersby that we’re celebrating a birthday.

As for the party itself, we let our children each choose a specific color theme that we weave into everything possible – tableware, clothing, gift wrap, decorations, the evening meal and cake. I wish I could say our children weren’t taken with licensed characters (everything from princesses to Spider-Man), but they are. We might include one or two character accessories, such as tattoos or party napkins. Otherwise, we draw on what we have on hand as much as possible and buy a few carefully chosen items.

Last year, my 2-year-old son requested an all-orange birthday, which worked particularly well because his birthday falls close to Halloween. I served orange Jell-O blocks and small cans of orange soda. We ate off orange plates and enjoyed cake frosted in the same hue. In fact, our children start talking about the shapes and colors of their cakes long before their birthdays arrive.

This is largely because my mother-in-law has introduced them to her tattered cake book, with bright pictures of dozens of different cakes. She used the same book to create cakes for her own children and now continues the tradition by making birthday cakes for her grandchildren. My mother, too, uses her talents to help build tradition; she creates a handmade card for each of our children every year. Lovingly rendered, these cards will become part of the archive of my children’s lives.

My daughters are sharing a rainbow-themed party, complete with a rainbow cake with fluffy marshmallow clouds, a bunting banner in rainbow hues, a giant rainbow-colored number “6” piñata, a fruit tray arranged in rainbow succession, and the requisite Jell-O.

There will be another party later in the month—for a boy who is smitten with red, and Volkswagen Beetles, and hitches. We’ll marry these three loves into what he has dubbed his “red slug bug hitch birthday.” His grandmothers, I’m sure, are already thinking about how they’ll render a red slug bug with a hitch into a cake and a card.

Imagination-laden parties offer my entire family the gifts of shared fun and warm memories. And that’s the best birthday present I can give any of my children.

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