Around here, summer always ends in a blaze of cake baking and party-giving, which is why you haven’t heard a peep out of me for a while. (No, I was not buried under an avalanche of shopping bags or so stunned by my clean office I was rendered paralyzed: I was up to my elbows in cake batter.)
Here’s the cake. It’s a small round chocolate cake with about eight cupcakes arranged around it. The thing in the middle is a dowel with ribbons tied onto it. My favorite part? The grapefruit fruit slice on the top. It looks sort of jaunty.
Yesterday, the youngest of the BlogLily boys celebrated his birthday at a family dinner. Earlier, over the weekend, he had a little party with his friends. It all sounds very simple, but honestly, it’s not really possible to celebrate a birthday in the United States of America simply anymore. And that, dear readers, is because of goody bags.
How the tradition of giving gifts to someone other than the celebrant at a child’s birthday party is unclear. My guess is that it came about because of some desire we have to help our children avoid unpleasant experiences, thinking — wrongly as it turns out — that avoiding them is the same as learning to handle them.
The worst and best part of a child’s birthday party, when I was a child, was the moment when the birthday child opened the presents. It was the stuff of which drama is made: would your present be acceptable, would there be something you wanted so badly you could imagine tearing it out of the birthday child’s hands and running away with it? Would the birthday child have a little manners misstep, and how would their mom handle it?
This present opening ritual was generally not very pleasant, despite the potential for an entertaining moment or two. I didn’t go to a lot of children’s birthday parties, not that I remember anyway, but I do remember the time we gave a barely literate girl in my class — the girl who struggled every time she had to read out loud — three books from the book order thing you do at school. I can still remember her look of utter disgust and the way her mother busted me with a mean little laugh, I’ll bet you read those first, she said. Indeed, I had, trying not to bend the pages, not thinking anyone would notice, knowing that it wasn’t the thing to do. It was terribly humiliating.
But I did file away for the future something about how not to treat a child who makes a mistake when a guest in my house. I also learned that it is not a good idea to give someone the very gift you would most like for yourself. Not everyone is like you. It was a vicious way to learn this, and the mother and girl were nasty too. Still, it was an experience that helped shape me as a social person and for the better.
What happens now, at a lot of parties among my children’s school friends, is that the presents are hustled out of the way, into a room out of sight, like they’re shameful. They aren’t heard from again until you get a thank you note. You never see them opened, never find out if anyone else gave a better gift than yours. I’ve done this myself, thinking to avoid any unpleasantness on an important day. The rest of the party goes like this: the children are entertained in some way: bowling, a clown, a craft project, a magician. After a while, a cake comes out, the song is sung and the guests are handed a goody bag, full of candy and little nick-nacks that quite possibly cost as much if not more than the gift the child brought to the party. This is the signal that the party is over.
It occurred to me once that goody bags were like a potlatch — a tradition I learned about when we studied the Indians of the Northwest, during the time I lived in Tacoma, Washington. (By that time, the Indians of the Northwest made a living selling tax free cigarettes from their land in Puyallup, but that is an entirely different story.) Anyway, when a tribe had a potlatch event, they’d load up their canoes with every valuable thing they owned and then they’d row over (paddle over, sorry!) to the neighbor tribe and drop the whole damned load off with their neighbors. And then you know what? The neighbors would have to turn around and give all their stuff away. I remember sitting in the classroom watching the filmstrip about this and wondering what would happen if all the other tribe had to give away were books.
Anyway, the goody bag/birthday present exchange does resemble a potlatch, although it has a different impulse at its core: it’s not so much about a kind of militant generosity (take that: here’s a Mercedes! Well, well…. here’s War and Peace..) but more about something I alluded to in the beginning of this post: goody bags disguise the truth that sometimes other people get the presents. Your turn will come — but you will have to wait for it. Instead, we’re telling children, Yes, that kid got a lot of presents. But you got some too, so it’s okay.
It is very hard to learn that you are not at the center and quite understandable that parents might want to short-circuit coming to terms with that knowledge. Certainly this is a painful truth in our own family of three children, where each boy struggles with the knowledge that there are others who command attention and resources, others who have things to say at dinner and want to use the bathroom or the computer.
But I think that handling this fact of life need not be a stark lesson in self-denial and stiff upper lip. It is also the case that the person who is the center of attention must learn how to make his guests feel welcome and important. And that’s why the things you do at the party matter. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more children who attend, and the more complicated the event or entertainment is, the less fun the party is.
It turns out that the most entertaining parties we’ve had have been the ones we put on in the street in front of our house (we live at the end of the street and no one drives down it). We set up a little carnival, hand out tickets and have prizes for the games. (No goody bags — but then there are the prizes, which are a lot of fun to win, even if all they are is a tootsie roll.)
This year, the youngest brother wanted to have his own carnival, having watched his brothers’ parties for most of his life. Except he didn’t want to have a lot of guests. In fact, he had two. And that made it unlike any other birthday party I’ve ever given or been too. It was just incredibly low key. The carnival was a piece of cake, since we’d made the games years earlier. And the cake, was too because it’s the same one I always make. A few neighbors, the two friends, the BlogLily brothers, my husband and I.
In case you are interested in what the carnival looked like, here it is:
An obstacle course:
A ball toss (our neighbor Pam, for the third year in a row, dressed up as a clown and ran this game, bless her heart):
Toss the football through the hula hoop.
Fishing (a BlogLily older boy crouches down behind the screen and eventually clips something to the clothespin that’s on the fishing pole.)
And then when the games had all been played (the children had a little bag with enough tickets to play the games a few times each), the BlogLily boy opened his presents — both of them — in front of everyone. The children who gave the presents explained why they liked them so much and the birthday child said thank you quite genuinely, because the whole idea of being given a gift was as fresh and wonderful as it should be. There is nothing sadder than a child who gets present fatigue after the fourth gift and begins to open packages with the resignation of someone opening a past due bill he can’t possibly pay. And then we all ate chocolate cake, played the games for a while longer without prizes, and went home. Until next year, when we have another carnival party.