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Birthdays...

Sarah's Cake

I think it's extremely important that our children know that we love each and every one of them dearly and that they are all special in their different ways; birthdays are a chance to demonstrate that love and celebrate their unique selves. We don't have a lot of spare cash to lavish on presents; PS2s or new surfboards are out of the question, but I hope they understand that love can't be measured by the amount of money spent and that we wouldn't necessarily buy them these transient delights even if we won the Lottery tomorrow! We try to make the day special, with gifts (including little "pocket money" gifts chosen & given by siblings) given in the morning and a special meal in the evening, and usually end up giving a party of some sort...

Sometimes I don't quite know how I feel as one or other of my children is invited to yet another "posh" party. Pleased for them, but slightly panicky at the thought that I'll have to live up to this in my turn! But over the years I've realised that in the kids' eyes, the best parties are not necessarily the most expensive or lavish. I have from time to time called on the services of the "professionals" - magicians, discos, etc. in a futile attempt to feel "relaxed" and "enjoy" myself, but the parties that stand out in our minds & those of the children have been a lot cheaper & more fun. The one thing they've had in common was a theme or at least a Big Idea behind them.

Sarah

Sarah gets into the party spirit...

Mike's football party was one of the best. Our church has a large hall which can be hired at minimal cost & opens out onto a big field. We had traffic cone goals, (borrowed from the local playgroup,) I made webbing "bands" to identify the teams and made sure there was a roughly even amount of talent per side. The weather smiled on us, (or we would have played in the hall,) my dear husband refereed, & I handled the refreshments including a very amateur "boot" cake with liquorice laces. 30 minutes each way, then they ate (outside, on blankets) then played "beat the Goalie" & "round the cones". When the parents arrived they were all exhausted and happy, (even the girls) and there was absolutely no hoovering to do!

Martyn had an "Army" party along similar lines. With prior permission, we used a school field which is lightly wooded along one side. We set up our dome tent beside the woods as a basecamp, then split the children into two teams and gave each team a flag, a pile of sticks, dark blankets & camouflage netting to construct a secret "base" at opposite ends of the wood. This took a good half hour, then we fed them "rations". Then they had to try to "capture" the other team's flag whilst defending their own; "casualties" (marked with chalk by the other team) had to wait in the tent for 5 minutes until "fit" to return to "duty". Our younger offspring acted as "messengers" and helped my husband "referee". Aagin, very little clearing up to do, and a heap of exhausted boys & girls at the end.

Sarah has just had a "kites & windmills" party, (although in the event there was no time left to make the windmills!) where, again in the church hall & out on the field, we made kites from A4 acetate sheets & old carrier bags (see 20 Kids, 20 Kites, 20 Minutes) which they then decorated with OHP pens and flew happily for the half-hour left before going home. I'd borrowed several big fans in case of lack of wind, which was just as well as it was a blisteringly hot day and we needed them indoors although there was a fair breeze outside.

Mollie

Mollie flies her kite

My kite

My eagle soars away!

Her "Knights & Princesses" party last year was a great favourite, too; we decked out a tent in the garden with banners cut from old jeans, made a wicker chair into a throne, played "pin the tail on the Unicorn," and at the end the big boys (& friends) became a "Chinese dragon" (head made of cardboard, body an old bedspread) for the knights to "slay" amid much hilarity.

Last year Jo & James (whose birthdays fall on different days, as I had them either side of midnight) had a giant "sleepover" which was hard work but fun. The guests were entranced by the "midnight feast" of homemade popcorn & fudge brownies and only one came over wobbly & had to go home! But this year, at 9, it didn't work out as well with the boys; I tried the "video & take-away" format (which works well with 12 & 13 year olds) and they only had a couple each to sleep over, but some of the little guests wanted to party, not sit & watch films, and must have driven our neighbours to distraction! The young ladies, however, happily made their own party bags, then made up each others' faces - much more manageable. I suspect boys are just more physical and need a channel for all the excitement.

I've always wanted to do the "Gingerbread House" party where they construct & decorate the houses from pre-cooked gingerbread, but have yet to find a reliable recipe. I suspect this would work best with just a few guests - peferably female! Jo was wildly jealous when some good friends turned their back room into an "Italian Restaurant" for their eldest daughter's party - the parents and her siblings dressed up as waiter, waitresses & fellow guests, there were flowers on the table, and a wonderful time was had by all. I wanted to do a "Cyberpunk" party for Martyn this year, where they would all wear black with "shades", bring their Gameboys etc. and play games on the PC and our elderly Megadrive - I got talked out of it, which he regretted in the end.

Petra from Whitby has emailed me with this idea: "We had a pizza party, we took a small group of girls swimming for an hour or so, then came back home for pizza. Then I handed over balls of pre coloured fondant icing (regalice is good and can be bought more cheaply in 5 kilo boxes from cake decorating shops) and they all modelled pizza toppings to place on a large flat round cake (the pizza base) that I had iced with a thin layer of cream regalice. They absolutely loved this, the end result was very artistic and the thank you letters were written on the back of foto's of the masterpiece! Great fun AND no one had been to a party like that before; sometimes our spoiled new millennium children become blasť about the expensive entertainment that is often laid on.

There's probably at least another page to be made out of "HOW TO DO IT" but that will take a while to put together! But in the meantime, some general advice - don't aim too high! Jane Asher cakes are all very well if you have hours to spare slaving over the details, but if you only have 20 minutes between helping your eldest with his homework and tucking the youngest into bed, don't despair. Children are remarkably unfussy, and hardly ever actually eat the cake anyway - mine usually get a variation on chocolate sponge or swiss roll, carved into a variety of shapes stuck together & covered with butter icing and decorated with sweets (see top, made with one round sponge & one square) - this does tend to get eaten. The older ones prefer "Fridge Cake" now, (click here for the recipe) which is even easier and reserved for very special occasions.

Woven Partybags

Get them to make their own party bags!

I do party bags (reluctantly!) in ordinary lunchbox bags and will never again buy cheap plastic "novelties" to put in them. Nearly all the contents are edible, including (untouched!) dry party leftovers like chocolate fingers, and there will be one decent little gift in there; I swoop on sale items & stock up throughout the year, like the tiny photo albums I found for 99p for Jo's partybag gifts in a "ye olde gifte" shop, or the mini fans for James's from our local market (the one he kept still works - 99p including battery.) Tiny Post-It notes together with a gel pen (both from split-up multipacks) worked well too. This year we made macrame wristbands to add to the girls' bags, which were woven from strips of wallpaper during the party itself. The boys were meant to make origami boxes during their party, but guess what? the girls had to make them for them...

Limit the amount of fizzy etc. visible; some will drink gallons of the stuff and instantly go "hyper" if allowed free rein, but if you are brave enough to say, "No, water if you're still thirsty," after the first couple of half-cups (NEVER fill the cups, they'll only spill it!) you'll have an easier time of it. Ditto with highly-coloured crisps & biscuits; some children undoubtedly do react unpredictably to these. Cold pizza slivers add some colour & are very popular, as are "flame" grapes & satsuma segments.

Lastly, always check that you have one or two extra adults prepared to stay if necessary - the time I ended up on my own with 17 seven year old boys will not fade from my memory easily... they all survived, but to this day I'm not sure how. Then just relax & enjoy... well, maybe a well-deserved glass of something afterwards?!

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© Copyright: Angela Corbet, 2001.