In England birthday parties are serious business. It starts with the guest list. Where in the Netherlands the rule is to invite as many as the age of your child, here no limits apply. And once your child has been invited, not asking back would not be polite. Then location. Pokey English rooms would not take an invasion of the kind, so a soft play area or gym is preferred. At the start of the party presents are whisked away invisibly. They will be opened later, in private, so impolite awkwardnesses can be avoided. One should never, like me, forget to attach a card. One also, again like me, shouldn’t forget to make notes while opening. A written thank you will be expected.
Then, it’s playtime. No party will pass without Pass the Parcel, where paper is ripped, presenting layer after layer of little gifts, so no one will feel left out. There is, often, a bouncy castle.
Only towards the very end, tea is served. A birthday tea of white and brown triangles, cheese, ham, jam and marmite. No peanut butter, there might be an allergy. Bowls of carrot sticks, cucumber, crisps and sausages. Pitchers of squash. While the kids fill up on the soft inside of the bread, the mothers watch. Who grabs a carrot that the kids won’t touch can expect avoiding looks. After tea the highlight of the party is brought in. The Cake. Home baked, off course, by any self-respecting mum. After Happy Birthday the cake disappears mysteriously. At the door it is handed out, rolled in a napkin, in a colourful plastic bag filled with sweets and cheap plastic toys, that will hover round the house for a few days until reaching their final destination, the bin.
As a foreigner I was going to do it differently. I thought. Well, I did not want to risk my son’s social status, so I invited all his friends. And more, I realised when I added up numbers. And actually, maybe we should intercept those presents at the door as well. We did hold the feast at home, keeping our fingers crossed that the weather would allow overspill in the garden. After some cursing and swearing at the oven and sticky moulds a few shop bought pound cakes, with the help of eighteen small children, five colours of icing and many, many sweets, transformed in a colourful train with pretty messy carriages. The sun made an appearance and the garden hosted bag and egg races while the mothers made their own tea and ate home baked muffins. During the baking of eighteen pizza’s dressed by as many children a puppet show was staged where Sinterklaas played Father Christmas. At the door no-one was disappointed when they did not get a bag but a book. With on top their own carriage, rolled in a napkin, because we forgot to serve the cake in the merry chaos. We sang Happy Birthday and Lang zal hij leven and it was the best party on either side of the Channel. Said Tijm.
The English mothers complimented, extensively. The Dutch mother flopped down on the sofa and dreamt of soft play area’s with bouncy castles and little white triangles that required no baking.