My 8 year old granddaughter recently went to a ‘pampering’ party to celebrate an older girl’s birthday. This involved a trip in a stretch limo to a beauty salon where they dabbled their toes in footbaths, had their nails painted, faces facialled and made up, and hair elaborately styled. She apparently had a wonderful time until the cucumber face-pack caused an allergic reaction and set her skin on fire.

It set me thinking about the Birthday Party phenomenon, the obligation for parents to put on a good show for other parents by inviting their kids to the best party that ever was. No expense spared, and don’t forget little Johnnie whose Dad is well up in the corporate world.

Back in the day – in Old Fart Land – we started to experience the trend. For the first party or two we had a small home gathering for 5 or 6 children, after locking away safely the china ornaments and inflammables. Sandwiches, biscuits and jelly kept them happy after we played ‘pass-the-parcel’ and, if we felt very brave, ‘musical chairs’. Pop records with a bit of wild dancing finished them off nicely until their parents came, thankful for the couple of hours respite they had enjoyed themselves. A balloon, and a piece of birthday cake wrapped in kitchen paper, got them all out of the door in nice time for us to grab a mug of tea before clearing up the vomit and wrapping paper. The small collection of inexpensive presents gratefully received soon joined the other broken stuff at the back of the toy cupboard. Job done.

Then the Joneses effect began to kick in. Other parents held bigger parties in village halls with ‘entertainment’ – a conjurer being the favourite. Soon more of the class was invited, and the girls wore high-fashion party dresses with matching sparkly shoes, with the boys in designer tee-shirts and trainers.  The novelty birthday cake became obligatory. I produced many such creations, clumsily iced in Technicolor and Jelly Tots. By this time the humble hall had switched to professional standard venues – museums, burger bars, swimming pools, where the birthday tea came as a package with activity, sometimes strenuous. On one such occasion a small boy plunged happily into the deep end of the pool and, hanging onto the side-rail, announced he couldn’t swim. Fortunately both of us, the host parents, were in our swimsuits.  My swimming pool cake was the peak of my cake-decorating career. After that it was downhill when I began to order much more impressive cakes from the bakery.

So what now? I’m glad to say village halls haven’t been abandoned entirely since not everyone has a ballroom-sized conservatory, and people do value their home furnishings, particularly if they are not the cast-offs from elderly relatives. Entertainment is a thriving business, often with a team of professionals. Party food has changed little except that it’s easier to buy ready-made, including special supermarket cakes. Themed parties are a must, often linked to the latest Disney film with a plethora of disposable tableware and party-bags, bags which contain some kind of expensive but equally disposable selection of goodies, like ‘toy’ make-up and hair decorations for girls, and water pistols for boys (the gender debate hasn’t reached the party scene yet it seems). The birthday presents (batteries not included) are beautifully wrapped in top quality paper, and must represent a considerable part of the profit of Toys R Us, although as ever the back of the toy cupboard beckons.

The biggest difference is that, as well as the entire school class, siblings sometimes tag along, often because parents seem to hang around, rather than dumping their offspring and doing a runner. After all it’s a chance to chat with friends from the school gates. and enjoy a glass of wine and some canapés thoughtfully provided by the hosts. Also you get to see what the competition is for your next party. For my grand-kids I’m thinking of suggesting a trip for the entire school in a spaceship – I could do a lovely cake? Parents (and grandparents) would be welcome to come along for the ride, but only if they promise not to vomit.

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