The Birthday Extravaganza

When I was growing up, a birthday party consisted of friends playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” “Musical Chairs,” and “Duck Duck Goose,” topped with gifts, plus cake and ice cream. Who could ask for more?

Fast forward 25 years. When my kids were little, planning birthday parties felt more like running a marathon. If you didn’t have a theme for your child’s party–from Cowboys to Dinosaurs to Princesses–you might as well forget it. Family Fun magazine was a staple, chock full of ideas. Failing to throw an innovative party meant failing motherhood.

The pressure was on. I rose to the occasion. 

You realize this means that EVERY single detail had to be tied to the theme: all games and activities, decorations, favors, and food.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article is intended to induce guilt, real or imagined.

Desiring to give my kids the kind of party they’d always remember and thank me for, I jumped in, full steam ahead. Here are a few highlights.

Kaia’s first party had a “Beauty and the Beast” theme, decorated with Mrs. Potts, Chip, Lumiere, and Cogsworth. It also featured a big cardboard castle. My husband Tim was the Beast. At one point he walked in and scared everyone.

The next year, we had a Teddy Bear Picnic. Kids brought their own teddy bears and decorated a huge picnic blanket (an old sheet) with fabric crayons. Among other activities, we had a scavenger hunt for the bears.

At Audrey’s Cinderella party, girls arrived and immediately put on ball dresses (from a bunch of dress up clothes) and later feasted on a castle cake, courtesy of my dear friend Norma. The one boy who came was elected to be Prince Charming. Lucky him.

Audrey (4) is in the red dress that her Grandma Moore made. The two dark-haired girls are her cousins Ana and Sandra. The friend is Ruth. Tim is taking a dance break.
My friend Norma volunteered to make this cake for Audrey’s 4th birthday. The picture doesn’t do it justice. Thank you, Norma!

On party days, Tim ensured that activities went smoothly. He enhanced the celebratory atmosphere, shined in crowd control, and helped clean up afterward.

In addition, many thanks to my sister Carol for the success of many parties. Not only did she drive her kids up from Chicago to join us, but she often took over the games and corralling kids so that I could take pictures and work behind the scenes to keep things rolling.  

Twice, Audrey wanted a “Wizard of Oz” theme. The first time, Kaia and Audrey drew life-size Dorothy and Scarecrow figures for “Pin Toto on Dorothy’s Basket” or “Pin the Patch on the Scarecrow.” Three years later, eight girls showed up as either Glinda or Dorothy. I guess nobody wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the West.

An array of Glindas and Dorothys! Audrey is the 3rd Dorothy, age 8. Her second Oz-themed party.
Audrey (5) and Kaia (7) with Dorothy and the Scarecrow, which they made. Audrey’s first Oz-themed party.

Audrey’s birthday is in the winter. Sometimes that involved making snowman crafts or Valentines.

When Colin was four, his favorite show (besides Mister Rogers Neighborhood) was Blue’s Clues. I must have cut out 100 blue paw prints for a game. Of course we had a Blue dog pinata.

Scrapbook page for the Blue’s Clues party.

The next year we had a Farm Animal theme, complete with a Pig cake.

No barnyard party is complete without a Pig cake.

We were in Florida for Jeffrey’s 5th birthday. His grandma asked what kind of party he wanted. He requested a Sponge Bob party on the beach. Thanks, Grandma!

Jeffrey (5) and Colin (almost 7) enjoying the beach party in Florida with siblings, cousins, and grandparents.

The next year, Jeffrey had a Pirate party. The kids dug for “treasure” in the sandbox and “walked the plank.” Outside during party preparation that morning, I smelled fish in the air. Odd–we didn’t live anywhere near a lake, though the smell fit perfectly with our pirate theme. My nose led me behind the garage where a neighbor had dumped a pile of fish from his boat. Oh, my!

The Pirate party immortalized in the scrapbook. Ahoy, mateys!

When we lived in Milwaukee, my husband Tim started an annual tradition on 78th Street. For summer birthdays, we pulled out all the toy instruments and any kitchen utensils, pots, or pans that could double as instruments. Then we lined up the neighborhood kids for a birthday parade. Afterward, we served snow cones.

Getting in line for the Annual 78th Street Birthday Parade. Leading at the right are Tim, Kaia, and Audrey.
Leader of the band or Pied Piper?

My parents usually came from out of town for my kids’ birthdays. So, besides the party with friends, we had birthday dinner with Grandma and Grandpa. This stretched the celebrations in a birthday week instead of just a day. One dinner was a luau–just can’t escape having a theme. Maybe it’s an addiction. Every event had to be better than the one before. Exhausting.

On top of the parties, yearly I made a treasure hunt for the kids to find their presents from Tim and me. They’d look for clues and perform tasks before locating and opening a gift. Though time-consuming, I loved doing that. It slowed down the gift-opening and made it more enjoyable for all.

As the kids got older, I said ENOUGH. I was done with themed parties where every detail had to fit together like a 1000-piece puzzle. Instead, the kids had one friend over for a sleepover. But we still made a fancy cake.

Kaia’s pool party cake. Next best thing to a real pool (which we didn’t have). The idea came from Family Fun magazine.
Friend Jennifer, Kaia, and Audrey with the Sleepover cake. Another Family Fun magazine inspiration.
The Sleepover cake. Under the pink frosting blanket are Twinkies for bodies. The faces are vanilla wafers.

Burned out on home-made birthday parties, I succumbed to Chuck E. Cheese.

Once, Jeffrey had a Garage Band party. He and three boys sat around making “music” in front of the TV. They didn’t care about themed games and cakes. Yay!

No Escape From Parties

However, after I banned complicated birthday celebrations, Kaia started planning other kinds of gatherings: New Year’s festivities, Valentine’s Day parties, craft days (dubbed Camp Moore), and so forth. I realized I had a daughter who thrived on this. Thus, we ended up throwing more parties than before the ban! 

She even planned at least two “surprise” birthday parties for me. She was probably ten for the first one. Unbeknownst to me, she invited about six of my friends over. The day of the party, she asked me to run random errands that would take at least two hours. (Of course I was suspicious by then). During that time, she baked and arranged a smorgasbord of treats and decorated the living room with Audrey’s help. It was the sweetest thing! 

Not surprising, Kaia went on to plan major events at her college, do part-time wedding planning post-college, and worked as an event planner for Chattanooga’s Chamber of Commerce for three years. She’s a natural. She does with ease the things that cause me much fretting.

A Bit of Serendipity

Several years ago, the tables turned. Tim planned a birthday gift treasure hunt for me! Colin and Jeffrey were in high school, so they were involved, too. It started with searching around the house and ended up across town at Half Price Books. 

Tim told me to pick any books I wanted. After browsing, I picked the L. Frank Baum biography. That led me down a whole new path in my writing ventures. More on that another time. 

What are your favorite birthday party memories? Either yours or your kids. Or . . . any party disasters?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


23 thoughts on “The Birthday Extravaganza

  1. Oh the memories. My first foray into cakes was a 3D barbie cake for Jenny’s Barbie Birthday. I did a cool racecar for John but the black icing on the tires tasted awful and while I was washing icing out of my new shorts, the dog bit the spoiler off the back of the cake. Michael had an amazing 3D train for his 1st birthday but there’s no evidence as the roll of film got left in a pocket and went through the wash! I think I’ve squeezed out thousands of icing stars over my lifetime as a parent. We eventually moved on to ice cream cakes for all birthdays. Robin and I made costumes for John’s pioneer 8th birthday and Chris dressed as a bear and chased everyone. There are so many more I could share, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we tie-dyed at one of Michael’s parties because we were inspired by your art fairs! I think that party had a life sized cardboard cut out of Chewbacca in attendance. Oh the things we do for our kids! Then comes the next generation. Chris carved a pirate ship fruit boat for our grandson’s pirate birthday party where one guest was so afraid of the eye patches and costumes he watched the entire party through the living room window.
    Thanks Laura for inspiring this Monday morning trip down memory lane!

    1. Wow, Janet! You really went all out! I love the variety. Bummer about the dog biting into the race car cake and having no film evidence of the great train cake!

      Our family also switched to ice cream cakes along the way. We had fun making and decorating the regular cakes, but didn’t like eating them. Ice cream cakes were the perfect alternative.

  2. My body kicked into empathy fatigue reading this, Laura. Our family party journey followed the same path, starting with going all-out for parties, to then wearing-out for parties leading to finally settling at simple-and-sweet!

  3. Wow! Love to hear these ideas and stories. My mom started the birthday memories for me with all the fun cut-up cakes decorated to perfection and I continued the tradition with my two kids. Yes, themes were big and we made cakes to look like dogs, rainbows, hot-air balloons, Saturn, a soccer ball, fish, etc, etc. I think our favorite was when we made an igloo ice cream cake lined with Ho-Ho slices with mini penguins made from Ho-Hos. Themed games of pin the _____ on the _____, bean bag toss (how many various themed bean bags did I make?!) and pass the multiple layer wrapped box of goodies around until the music stopped. That child pulled off a layer… repeat until everyone got a prize from the box. Nathan loved the year he got to light the huge bonfire and then have hot dogs and toasted marshmallows.
    A pyromaniac was born!

    Two birthdays stand out though. One was my own when I turned 10. We had made hats and leis for every kid on the block. Unfortunately, I came down with a very painful case of the Mumps the night before. We went ahead with the party and the lucky Birthday girl got to watch her friends playing games outside while she watched through the window ;-(. I didn’t feel much like eating, but everyone else seemed to enjoy the ice cream and cake. Everyone gathered around the window and watched while I opened presents. I do remember several craft kits I received being much appreciated during the next couple of weeks that I was in quarantine.
    The second memorable birthday was when my daughter, Joanna, turned four . We had friends over for a party and everyone had a great time. Unfortunately one of the party favors we sent home with was unplanned and not greatly appreciated. One mom called the next day to say her daughter had the chicken pox. You guessed it- everyone at the party ended up with spots … all except my kids because Joanna had contracted chicken pox the week before her brother was born 2 years earlier.

    1. I love the igloo ice cream cake idea! And clever way to do Hot Potato with multiple wrapped layers. I hope you took pictures of all the cakes.

      Birthday girl mumps and chicken pox “favors” . . . hard to top those unfortunate events!

  4. Well, being married to a lovely Cuban introduced a whole new concept of birthday parties to me when our daughter Amy came along. Each year Clem would remind me that, “Amy will only be three once.” And, “Amy will only be four once.” And on and on that went. We did all kinds of birthdays from clowns coming to perform to going to the Curious Kids’ Museum, and of course Chucky Cheese. Then as Amy got a little older there was roller skating and bowling! Amy’s birthday parties became so famous that one year as the children were gathering there was a ring at the door. It was a mother and her son with a gift in hand. We had never met or seen them before. The mom said that her son was new to Amy’s elementary class and had we known, he would have been invited to the party! Even to this day Amy’s friends like to reminisce about those birthday parties! Thanks for this week’s entry. It brought back a lot of joyful memories! I think I’ll go dig out those old pictures now!!!!

    1. Was there anything specifically Cuban about the celebrations? In Mexico, you get cake smashed into your face, or vice versa. I don’t know Cuban traditions.

      So glad the good memories are rolling! I loved hearing how the parties were so famous that the new boy in town invited himself over!

      1. Well, Cubans have piñatas for birthday celebrations, but unlike the Mexicans, Cubans have to pull strings that open the candy rather than smashing the piñata with a stick!

      2. Reading about birthdays is a fun way to unwind from the day. I love your themes! I too had the marvelous Barbie cake! I remember my Annie birthday party when I turned ten. While we did not have themes all of the time, we always woke up to streamers in the kitchen criss-crossing and twisted like a licorice from the ceiling lamp to the corners of the room and with alternating colors in between. The giant bundle of balloons would light up when the ceiling light turned on. From Grandma or Mom, there would always be a beautiful cake or a very special homemade dessert like chocolate eclairs, Boston Creme Pie Cake, waffle cones with ice cream, fresh fruit, and whipped cream and our favorite meal for dinner. On the fireplace were set gloriously wrapped gifts in matching papers with ringlet curls of ribbons flowing from the top down the sides. My birthday was in late June, so these memories are paired with crickets chirping at night and evening games of flashlight tag. So much more…thank you for the memories.

        1. My mouth is watering after reading about your chocolate eclairs and Boston Creme Pie! Early summer is the perfect time for a birthday. Sounds like your mom and grandma definitely made it special for you! I’ve never heard of an Annie party. Did somebody come as Daddy Warbucks?

  5. These memories were fun to read. I got a few chuckles out of them and Bradley asked me from across the room what I was chuckling about!

    1. That reminds me . . . One of the most memorable gifts my girls ever received was from you–the bubble gum-making kit. (It may have been for a birthday, I don’t know.) After making the gum, the ENTIRE kitchen was covered in flour (or whatever it was), including the ceiling! I’m not exaggerating. 🙂

  6. Does your brain just keep manufacturing creativity? Oh my goodness! Every party was a delight! I especially like the summer 78th Street Birthday Parade. So many kids besides your own no doubt have great memories of that. I love it. Your Tim is a gem to not only help, but actively participate!
    Themes actually help coral our ideas so we have some direction with planning. I haven’t a tenth of your artistic ability but thrived on coming up with birthday themes and seeing how much I could squeeze out. If I came up with my own original ideas, so much the better. (I figured out how to do giant palm trees for a jungle party one year right out of my own head)
    Two church friends and I are the unofficial shower planners for our church and we always enjoy coming up with a theme that reflects the woman’s tastes, interests, hobbies etc.
    Great post! I am not one bit surprised your daughter is carrying on your tradition!

    1. Yes, themes are very useful for planning and, as you say, for corralling ideas.

      Making giant palm trees for a jungle party sounds ambitious!

      Great that you can continue to plan parties/showers to honor women at your church.

  7. So many fun birthday memories… but one that comes to mind scarred me a bit. It was my older sister’s party when she turned twelve. She must’ve had close to fifteen friends over, and one decided the party goers should make a human spanking machine (this seemed to be a birthday party tradition back in the day). Anyway, the partiers lined up making a human tunnel. My sister willingly, and with a smile, entered crawling as quickly as possible while each of her friends smacked her rump as she went through… I guess some must have hit her pretty hard because when my sister exited the teenage-torture-tunnel, she was crying her eyes out – no more birthday smiles. I was only seven at the time, but I knew that tradition would not be carried on at any of my parties, lol.

    1. Oh, my! I remember those spanking machines! I had completely forgotten about them. But I think that happened at every birthday party in the 1960s. Fortunately, I didn’t have a traumatic experience like you did. 🙂

  8. I had a humdinger of a birthday party for my first-born’s first birthday. Made two cakes–one a teddy bear for her to play in, and one with a barbie doll in the middle–which I had sewn the cloth dress for her to represent a part of her heritage. We invited the extended family and by the end of her being passed around from person to person, she was sound asleep when it was time to do her cake and I realized I hadn’t spent more than five minutes with my precious little one, so caught up in trying to be there for the guests.
    That kind of set my future birthday plans–nothing so big that I didn’t get to celebrate with my child.
    For their first birthdays, I continued making a cake for them to play in and sewed doll clothes for my girls, teddy bear clothes for my boy, again each representing some ancestry. (Southern American, German, British, Russian, Lebanese) Almost all our birthdays from then on were just immediate family ones.
    I gave one “invite your friends” birthday, usually around 6, with all the themes, etc… Unfortunately, around my area, home birthdays were no longer in, and kids only wanted to go to Chuck E Cheese, gymnastics, or Action Territory parties. So, sadly, for two of the five home themed parties we had worked so hard to set up, only one or two kids showed up. I was so glad I wasn’t do any more of those.
    I still tried to make fancy cakes though. Noah’s Ark, a castle, a swimming theme,… But one time I made a mistake I let my child pick what cake she wanted out of a Wilton Cake Decorating magazine. She chose this beautiful carousel and I said yes–before I realized it fed 40 people! So I had to invite extended family to help eat it. Three years later when we moved, I still had frozen layers of that cake in the fridge. It made a tasty dessert on our last night there.
    My kids didn’t seem to mind not having friend parties, and we did have one family tradition that the kids still talk about. They use to argue over whose present should be opened last. So we started doing musical presents. We’d put all the presents all on the table and pass them from person to person while the music played. When it stopped, which ever present was in front of the birthday person, that’s the one that got opened next. (And if Mama happened to see which present was about to reach the birthday person as she turned off the music, no one ever asked. 😉 )

    1. I like hearing how you tried to bring in a bit of the kids’ ancestry with each doll or teddy bear. So sad to hear that kids wouldn’t show up for a home birthday party! That makes it all about the place rather than the person. Very bothersome.

      Wow, the carousel cake sounds amazing! And what a fun way to choose which gift to open next! (Whether contrived or not.)

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