It used to be so simple. It used to be so much fun.
A child’s birthday party, pointy paper hats, a couple of strings of balloons, plenty of games like pin the tail on the donkey, and of course, the requisite ice cream and cake.
I can remember every birthday party I went to back in the ’50s came from a cookie-cutter mold. There was a delicious cake, sometimes from a bakery, sometimes baked by the birthday boy or girl’s mother, but always we had Dixie Cups of ice cream. Half chocolate, half vanilla, with a little wooden shovel that helped to poke the ice cream out of the cup. Sometimes there were pictures of movie stars and cowboy stars on the inside of the lids, and some kids licked them dry and saved them, but always Dixie Cups were ever-present at those parties.
As birthday parties evolved and we got older and more “sophisticated,” more adult food was introduced, like Lipton onion dip with Wise potato chips accompanied by a bowl of pretzels and some punch, but never a full meal. I don’t think anybody ever expected it. We were there to play games, to have cake and ice cream, and to “torture” the birthday celebrant as kids do.
In the teen years as people moved to suburbia and got their first barbecue grill, there would be hot dogs and hamburgers, a real treat. But that was it. Of course ice cream and cake, but the purpose of the birthday party was really not the food, it was the fun of everyone being there, making a bunch of noise, and as we reached adolescence, even a bit of clumsy flirting.
So, when did it change? When did a birthday party become less about the child and morph into a full-fledged competition among the adults? When were the Dixie Cups put aside and the little girls taken off to a salon to have their nails done in the name of the host’s birthday? Because Mommy and Daddy could afford it and wanted to one-up or top the Mommy and Daddy’s “show” at the last party.
It was no longer enough to put up colored crepe paper in the house or outside by the grill; no, now you had to take the little tykes to a venue where someone else would entertain them for the jingle in your jeans. “How much per child will that package come to?” would be the question most asked. Package? Ah yes, the venues saw a new income stream in parental competition and jumped on it … why not? They are in business to make money, and these greedy, one-upping clients just made it so easy.
Now they go to craft shops, theatres, petting zoos, etc. Remember Chuck E. Cheese? Before they left the market, birthday parties were their stock and trade. For a set price and a two-hour window, every little cherub would get two slices of pizza, unlimited soda to jack them up so they could scream and run around, and game tokens. The adults didn’t have to do anything except drop them off, go have a belt at a neighborhood bar, and then pick them up. Nothing to clean up, nothing to supervise. Someone else was doing that … for a price. It was birthday daycare.
Over the years I have heard of taking the partygoers to a Broadway show, but because of the $75-$125 ticket price per head, “Only limit it to three friends.”
Even so, with a parent or two, the birthday child, and three guests, by the time you were done with transportation and buying lunch in New York, you were looking at a $1,000 tab and no Dixie Cups.
The most bizarre kids party I have heard about came from a local friend whose son, daughter-in-law, and four children live out west. Seems the 3-year-old twins were having their party, and because Daddy does well, it was showtime. They rented white Shetland ponies and dressed them as unicorns with horns and dyed them purple so the kids could ride, along with face-painting, a lavish buffet (3-year-olds will eat dirt, why do they need shrimp platters and skewers of anything?), and a taco truck brought in to accompany the make-your-own margarita and martini bar for the adults. Isn’t that precious?
This October, just give me a Dixie Cup. Dibs on the vanilla.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 19 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at [email protected] or 401-539-7762.