This weekend marks the 30th Anniversary of the Greatest Birthday Party of All Time. Held in my honor, at least.* I’d had other birthday parties, most more generic than others: in first grade I’d had a tea party where we decorated paper hats; in fourth grade we had a town-wide scavenger hunt (which sounds crazy, but it was a very small town, and nearly everyone invited spent plenty of time wandering around that town unsupervised already). In second grade I spent my birthday in Disney World. But third grade was when my parents went a little nuts with the idea of throwing a themed party in our own home, and the results were EPIC.
My mom had gotten this book for Christmas 1986, The Children’s Party Handbook, which is no longer in print, but it looks like you can track down a few used copies on Amazon! It had themes for parties based on things like Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Circuses (all of which my sister had parties of over the years), but of all the suggestions the one that caught my fancy the most was called “Knights Around the Table” (on page 150 if you’ve got the original edition handy). I had little interest in knights, but castles meant princesses, and we would get to wear those funny cone hats with the flowy flowy veils!
But the decorating. That was where my parents lost their minds with the greatest success. When they’d bought our house it had been listed as one-and-a-half stories, because the unfinished attic was large, with a full set of stairs. In the summer of ’87 they converted the attic into actual living space. But by that spring they’d gotten it cleaned out and cleaned up, so we had this huge empty space for party games. My dad built cardboard battlements around the top of the (currently banister-less) stairs. My mom stapled butcher paper across the open wall supports, and painted a stone block pattern on it, broken up by “windows,” in which she painted lovely little pastoral scenes. I thought my mom was the awesomest artist that never became famous from that moment on.
The book recommended making a different coat of arms for the front of each shield-shaped invitation, and then hanging a larger version of each coat of arms around the house for decoration, so that each guest had their own personal shield. I helped with this part myself. I should point that out! There was a lot of prep work for this event, but my parents didn’t let me off the hook just because it was my party: on the contrary, “You want this party? You help get ready for it.”
The other prep I remember working on was another suggestion straight out of the book: hats and horns. The hats were what the book called “coronets” for boys and “barbettes” for girls, though as a nine-year-old I thought those were stupid names and refused to use anything different than “hat.” I loved our lady-in-waiting hats. We made a cone out of large cardstock, trimmed the edge with cotton and sequins, and draped tissue paper out of the top. There was an all-important elastic chinstrap as well. The boys’ hat was simpler, a cardstock ring decorated with foil and sequins, with a thickish circle of tissue paper stapled into a low poof across the middle. I didn’t have all that many boy guests to make these for. As it turned out, two of my boy cousins were several steps ahead of us, anyway, and arrived in full suits of paper-plate armor.
The horns were made from long cardboard tubes with a conical cup taped to the end. We wrapped the whole thing in aluminum foil, then stapled two long colored streamers around the bell.
As each guest arrived, my dad announced their name (with a “Lady” or “Sir” attached to the front), and escorted them through the streamer-decked archway into our living room, where everyone else who’d already come waited in their new hats in two facing rows, raised their horns, and tooted out a usually fairly raucous fanfare (two of my cousins had been there since early morning, so even the first guest to arrive at party time had a decent-sized welcome). The new guest passed under all the raised horns, then received their own hat and horn and joined the column to greet the next arrival. This was a fun way to break the ice, and also introduce people who might not know each other, since half the guest list came from school or the neighborhood and the other half were cousins from both sides of the family.
Games were another section in which my parents merely used the book as a jumping-off point. The book suggested Banana Jousting. This struck my parents as either too messy or too wasteful—or both—so instead we had Balloon Jousting. Two at a time, we’d swordfight with long balloon-animal-type balloons, balanced on a board raised slightly off the floor by a couple of thick books. First person to fall off the board was out, winner moved to the next round. Needless to say, many unofficial jousts broke out in between rounds.
Even more popular was a beanbag toss. This wasn’t in the book at all, and was only vaguely Castle-related: we tossed frog-shaped bean bags—homemade!—into a (cardboard with holes) lily pond. They might have been princes–I don’t know. What inspired my mother to make all those frogs (again, I helped, I filled them with beans!)? No matter: each guest got a frog to take home, and at the end of the party, I’m afraid most of my mother’s painted stone walls came down in a barrage of enthusiastically flying frogs.
Finally, almost straight out of the book, we had a quest for the Holy Grail. My parents had written three sets of treasure hunt clues and hidden them around the house. We split into three teams, and each had to follow one color of clue to the end (if you found someone else’s color, it didn’t count). My team got hung up on a clue that I swear was worded poorly, but another team reached the end and found a large goblet full of candy that they got to split between them.
We had a full dinner, but the only parts I remember now were the Sword In the Stone baked potatoes (an idea from the book: you cover plastic knives with foil, make them a nice foil handle, and stab the potato) and the jeweled fruit, which were very tasty sugared grapes. Looking through the book, I’m pretty sure the potatoes were the only dinner idea we took from the book. Of course, the drinks were (ginger) ale and (root) beer.
But the cake and ice cream WERE straight out of the book, starting with this magnificent dragon.
And yes, this is the ice cream.
An Adaptable Legacy
When twelve years later, I, a college student studying elementary ed, had to plan a Star Wars party for my little brother, most of my ideas developed, intentionally or not, from the roots of my Castle party. The hunt for the Grail became a hunt for R2D2, who is carrying a message of vital importance (it’s an R2 tape player recorded with the message “come inside for cake!”). The Balloon Joust became a Balloon Lightsaber Battle. The lilypond became the Death Star and the beanbag frogs became missiles (they were just plain beanbags this time). Hats and horns became junk for making instant alien costumes (and as we had surprise knights at my party, my brother had a surprise Leia at his).
Now I’m planning a Minecraft party for my soon-to-be-10-year-old. There are… actually very few crossovers in this one (except for beanbags. There must always be something to throw). But the feeling is the same, this feeling that the prep may be extensive, but it’s nearly as fun as the party itself might be. I’ll tell you about that one when we finish it.
*It’s also the 20th Anniversary of the Closest Runner Up, in which my college friends threw a surprise party for me in a dorm common room and invited the entire dorm. Which sounds a little scary when I put it that way, but there were a lot of great people in that dorm. Everyone had a blast.