Joyful though it may be to witness a child’s excited face when they rush to the ding-dong of the doorbell to greet another party guest, somewhere there is a mother crying silent tears underneath her face cream.
Organising childrens’ birthday parties is the single most stressful event in a person’s life, trumping bereavement/moving house/divorce.
Where a cheesy wotsit and a bar of galaxy wrapped a million times in pass-the-parcel wrapping paper may once have sufficed, today’s ankle-biter is an altogether trickier customer.
Like pint-sized Alan Sugars they stand back with a smirk on their face as you fumble a varied skill-set in the hopes of pulling-off a decent do. ‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ they think.
It has to be sufficiently different from the other 425 parties they have attended the previous month but not so different that you get labelled a pretentious arse, with details of your absurd extravagance published in the Daily Mail, as yet another example of Why Children Today Are Too Spoilt and Will Cause The Destruction of the Earth.
The invitations set the scene for the eternal conflict at the heart of every stage of the party process: you want to buy them/you should make them/you want to buy them/you should make them.
With flashbacks to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) you reach out for a 12-pack of ‘Please come to my party’ when a thin voice on your shoulder whispers, ‘Do you also try to buy the love of your child?’
And so the tone is set for the whole enterprise. It moves through thoughtful gifts, traveling on to tasteful balloons, winding around eco-friendly toys for the guests to play with: a veritable river of P.C. anti-consumerist consumerism with its source in Fear of Looking Like a Crap Parent.
Provision needs to be made for both the adults and the children, who have opposite needs. The adults want the children to eat well and consume at least one mouthful of vegetable in between the gobfuls of sugar.
They, meanwhile, want to assemble all the party rings, crisps, jelly and ice-cream they can fit into their mouths, whilst still being understood on the subject of school admissions.
For their part, the kids want to rub yoghurt raisins into the carpet and peel satsumas to stuff down the side of sofas. The only solid that will past their lips must begin with ‘c’ and end in ‘e’ and have an ‘a’ and a ‘k’ in the middle.
The look of contempt with which they pass over brown-bread sandwiches will back this up; it makes you wither humbly, like a courtier chastened for trying to tempt Henry VIII with a houmous dip.
And yet, in a cruel twist of our times, nary an artificial colour dare rear its head. The menu must demonstrate you know your trans-fats from your anti-oxidants or the collective eye of the school gate mothers will be watching for signs of rickets in your child.
At the epicentre of the party is the cake. Nothing will say more about who you are as a person. Nothing will take as long to think about. Nothing, in my case, will be quicker to make.
Prior to the Domestic Goddess it was possible to trot off to M & S, conscience-free. Now we’re all back in the kitchen pretending to know what to do with spring-based tins.
Delia, however, has had the foresight to create the all-in-one-sponge-idiot-cake, which is entirely passable. Or at least I hope my little treasure thinks so because he’s getting variations thereof until he’s 18.
With all partygoers comatosed on chocolate confectionary a hush falls on the room. Who’s coming to entertain us, plead the little greedy eyes? What poor bastard are you going to feed into the lion’s den?
Children’s entertainers could fill a whole topic by themselves, or at least the east wing of a high-security prison. For now we’ll say they are either funny or they’re not and they will know into which category they fall by the end of their performance.
Trying to make the fathers like them even as as they pass veiled sexual remarks to their wives, whilst twisting balloon poodle dogs for their children, is not as easy as it sounds. Pity them.
But you don’t have to care one way or the other. You are on the home stretch, gathering together the take-home party bags. These are the ones stuffed with original and inoffensive knick-knacks which you purchased after receiving a ‘No’ to the question you posed to a mentor earlier in the week:
‘Do you mean I can’t put sweet cigarettes, a plastic dagger, a replica pistol and several e-number treats into a plastic bag with successfully-merchandised children’s television characters on the front?’
Luckily, it’s impossible to re-wind and discover who gave which gift (whose artful wrapping was animalistically shredded by someone other than the birthday nipper).
Which makes thank-you notes redundant.
There is a God, after all.