I was drinking my coffee this morning in a reflective mood remembering this day 16 years ago when I hoped my first baby would be born; the date was 9.9.99 and I liked it as a birth date. Baby had other ideas however and finally made it into the world a couple of hours into the 10th. While ruminating on this momentous event and beginning to get all nostalgic I noticed a call out for posts about children’s birthday parties around the world from a blogging group I belong to. And so blogging inspiration struck, the nostalgia became constructive and I decided to write about children’s birthday parties in France – and what not to do.
Tomorrow will be the 26th birthday we’ve celebrated with our children (10 + 16) and while the teen hasn’t had a “birthday party” as such for a few years now, we’ve organised, held and attended plenty since the first one in September 2000.
First birthdays are obviously for the parents, the baby doesn’t understand; it’s an opportunity to gather some friends and celebrate the first year of life, but from 2 onwards our boys have had parties with their friends. They’ve all taken place in France, in the Paris region and then the Côte d’Azur. My observations about children’s birthday parties in France therefore come from these experiences and I realise I can’t categorically say “this is how it is in France”, but rather how I’ve seen it in France.
I remember the first proper party I organised (for the 2nd birthday); I went mad. I baked so many cakes, decorating like crazy, fun frog cupcakes, a smiley face cake and plenty of savoury snacks. I made cheese straws, pretty canapés with tarama, classically British cucumber sandwiches and sausage rolls. My French friends said “c’est spéciale” “oh dis donc, du salé pour le goûter….” in slightly mocking/disapproving and bewildered tones. Even the homemade cakes were complimented in the way you might praise a particularly hopeless child’s drawing. It was clear something was amiss.
It turned out savoury is never, not ever, for tea-time: le goûter is 100% sweet. Sausage rolls, slices of pizza or raw vegetable sticks just don’t feature. That was the first *cultural difference*. Then there’s the whole home-made thing. Conversely for a nation so into its pâtisserie I’ve found that in general French parents don’t bake birthday cakes. And they certainly never ice them…with fun childish decorations! Most birthday parties I’ve been to have involved a bought tart of some sort (apple most often) and perhaps a simple plain yogurt cake or moelleux au chocolat (a rich, thin semi-baked chocolate cake without icing). The amateur cake made into the shape of the child’s latest craze (Thomas the Tank Engine, Minions, football whatever) and smothered with thick brightly coloured butter icing just doesn’t cut it here. [In the photo above you can see some of my madness plus 2 cakes brought by local friends at the back, both plain and un-iced].
I cottoned on pretty quickly but defiantly served savoury snacks for many years, despite no one eating them. You could call me stubborn. I also persisted with my amateurly iced cakes as my boys love them. But over the years I’ve reduced the quantities of food and as far as savoury goes, I now put out a small bowl of crisps and occasionally some cocktail sausages as my culturally mixed kids like them, but long gone are the sandwiches, canapés and dips. I’ve assimilated and now the tea part of the tea party tends to be a slice of cake (defiantly still homemade and iced I might add) and a handfull of sweets…
So having got to grips with the food etiquette of a French children’s birthday party, I started to notice another cultural difference: games (though it may be wishful thinking on my part that parents still organise games in other parts of the world, I’m not sure). Even this year when my little one turned ten I organised party games. Less now he’s older but we used to play pass-the-parcel, musical chairs, dead lions, pin the tail on the donkey, egg & spoon race etc. Nowadays it’s more likely to be Twister and games in the pool. But I’ve found over the years that at kids’ parties in France, unless there’s an entertainer, there are not a lot of organised activities, just regular free play. The children are left to kick a football around, do some colouring, dress-up in costumes, play with lego etc, just like an ordinary play date. The only difference is they sing “joyeux anniversaire” (to the same tune as happy birthday) and give presents to the birthday child.
In my experience it’s not the norm to invite the whole class (which I must say I’m happy about) just a smallish number of friends. My boys always want to invite lots of people and we’ve had up to 18 but usually around 10-12. However, the parties they go to tend to have more like 8 children. A much more manageable number especially if nothing is organised. I know my nieces and nephews in England feel pressure to invite the whole class and therefore get invited back by the whole class and seem to go to birthday parties every weekend. That isn’t the case in France.
My boys are a multi-cultural mix with friends from all over the world so different traditions and customs work their way into all aspects of their and their friends’ lives. Obviously there’s no such thing as a standard “French” party, but in France unless the party is 100% expat I think it’s safe to say it’ll be similar to what I’ve described here. I enjoy being different, I make sure my boys know about their British and Australian heritage but they are French too and like to be the same as their friends. In this respect I feel it’s only fair to adopt a more French approach to birthday parties, when in Rome and all that….So birthday parties for us have become less structured and more relaxed over the years and we all seem happy with that.
What are children’s birthday parties like where you live? Do tell!
School Christmas Dinner in France
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I’m just planning my sons first “French” party for his upcoming 5th birthday. I’ve got to admit, I’m nervous (hence why I was googling ‘birthday parties in France’ just now)! We’ve been to a couple here and our observations are much like you explained – so I’m glad I now know that’s the norm. Although I’m slightly disappointed we won’t get to throw a big party like we would have at home (NZ) for this ‘special’ birthday!
Thanks for this post! I live in the US but my husband and his family are from Mexico originally. His niece, who was born and raised here, is having her quinceanera (traditional coming of age party) and wants to do a Paris theme. Rather than just do the Eiffel tower decorations, I thought it would be fun to add some authentic touches, which is how I arrived at this post. Mexican parties always involve full-on meals (no matter what time) as well as a cake, which is always purchased as Mexicans don’t tend to bake. The parties are very fluid in terms of time and organization; whatever time you show up, you will be served food. They do no games except for the pinata, which is standard; it is also common to rent a bouncy house if the space and budget allow. We don’t have children yet but my husband and I are discussing doing kind of a mix, with more activities for the kids because I don’t like that the child being celebrated often seems to get sidelined except for a few minutes of glory with the presents, song and cake. (Also there are a few birthday songs but the most common one is the same Happy Birthday tune sung in Spanish.)
Just popping over to say I included this in this month’s Expat Round up on Britmums! 🙂
wow how lovely , ive never thought about others traditions or ways when it comes to celebrating birthdays
Loving the simplicity but maybe not all the sweet things. Parties need sandwiches and sausage rolls….what else do the parents eat when the kids disappear?
Such a wonderful post to read as we’ve just come back from France. I always find it so interesting to hear how other nationalities celebrate birthdays and the like. It’s nice to be different. I remember when I lived in Oz celebrating Christmas outdoors in the sunshine 🙂
I have never really thought about how parties differ across the world!
These parties look brilliant. Mine are young enough to still enjoy a party and Eliza had Frozen characters and Isaac superheroes to his last year
I definitely throw traditional English then as you can’t have a party without cocktail sausages and musical bumps!
love the cakes you made! how funny, I had no idea, I love savoury over sweet so I would struggle with that set up! x
This made for fascinating reading. I do love a simple, hassle-free children’s birthday party. That is how it should be.
I like hearing about the cultural differences. That reminds me I haven’t sorted a cake – but we haven’t got a load of children coming we are just doing things with his best mate (whose birthday is the day before). I do like traditional party food mind – think I wuld miss that.
Oh I love the idea of a simple birthday party, especially when things are going the opposite in the UK. I like the stay at home teas me and my bestfriend do for our kids!
How odd they don’t go more to town on their birthday cakes having such a wonderful repertoire to draw from!
When I lived in Italy parties were a lot easier, here in the UK I am hoping this year will be different as the twins have changed school and therefore classmates, we can really keep the numbers down with a bit of luck
Such an interesting insight to the French. I couldn’t imagine going to such a party 😉
What a fun post! This is so interesting!
wow a party with no sausage rolls is not a party for me! i had never thought about what difference there might be between countries in terms of parties
Well done for sticking to your own pattern, Phoebe.
This was a fun post to read because I found similar differences in Germany. Most notably is the German party is at least 3 hours long–which for this mommy is about an hour and half too long. I too found that the whole “pintresty” party which is the craze in the USA is obsolete. The Brit moms appreciated the effort, but others were almost mystified. American taste buds can handle a lot more sugar as I found out when my German neighbor took one bite of my homemade multilayered cake and practically spit it out. One bite was all she took–I finished it for her 🙂 @outandaboutglobal
Great post – we’re just in the midst of organising our twin boys’ sixth birthday party as we speak! It’s not going well as they can’t agree on anything so far. Those parties all look like a lot of fun though!
This post made me laugh. Completely surprised at the sweet thing though! In Denmark, party food consisted of frankfurter sausages, warm white bread rolls, hot chocolate and a huge danish pastry cake in the shape of either a boy or a girl and studded with danish flags and sweets! Thankfully we weren’t expected to make that! Here parties are a little more what we are used to, and similar things are served too! 🙂
I was surprised with the differences between children’s parties here in France and back in the UK … and have to say as some-one who was never keen on the “Let’s invite the whole class and out-do every other party” attitude that was all too common in the UK, this was a pleasant surprise. That said, and like you, I still slipped some Englishness into the boys’ parties, especially when they were younger. More food (including savoury) that your average French party, possibly less sweets and maybe one organised game. The children seemed to love the differences and I am sure the parents just shrugged and thought their [i]amie anglaise[/i] was a tad quirky. Equally though, the boys have still really enjoyed the more simple French parties … which are so much less stress for parents!
Stick to your guns Pheobe, I want to see delicious home made cake smothered in sugary frosting. I want cocktail sausages, I want sausage rolls. A jar full of M&Ms never goes astray and you must have games! Forget others traditions, do it your way and make it your own!!
(Though I must say I love the not needing to invite the whole class thing – schools are only two weeks in and I’m already at weekend birthday party fatigue… )
Good on you phoebe. Your boys birthday parties sound and look great.
Wow Phoebe this is so interesting!!! Who would have guessed there would be no savoury food!! I love a good sausage roll at a party haha!!
I am delighted to read that you also include a classic cucumber sandwich for a birthday, I did this at Arthur’s first birthday and none of our friends (all British I might add) understood what I was talking about……!!!
Well done to sticking to your guns with fun and brightly iced cakes too haha a party is all about that!!
I wonder how cheese and pineapple hedgehogs would go down there with the mix of sweet and savoury, I love a good cheese and pineapple stick!!!!
Thanks for linking up for #myexpatfamily really enjoyed this 🙂 x
Love this! We’re going through the whole party dilemma here at the moment as Emma turns 10 on Sunday. It’s never fun when you have just arrived somewhere and haven’t yet worked out what everyone does! In the end we are more or less doing what we would do in the UK (after all, it’s an International school so there isn’t one dominant culture, although there are more Americans than anyone else). The main difference is I am inviting more of her classmates as she doesn’t yet really have one or two close friends, and as they are very small classes it’s hard to just invite five or six girls as that would mean two or three left out. I wrote a post about this very subject just last week by the way
Gosh this gave me a bout of nostalgia too! I spent the first 11 years of my life in Belgium, and birthday parties were very similar to what you describe. After that it was on to the UK and an international school, and parties were a cultural mishmash. We had days out quite often as we were teenagers at that point (remember laser quest?!). I really need someone to fill me in on Swedish party traditions, but only so I know what to expect – If you’re the one throwing a party I think you should do what you damn well please, iced cakes included!
Lovely post and so fascinating to hear the cultural differences with birthday parties in France. I’d be all over the savoury snacks – I’m much more of a savoury person! Although that 9th birthday cake looked seriously delicious! Birthday parties in the BVI are relaxed and generally on the beach. They do however generally involve a huge, gaudy, iced cake which is great fun if you ask me!
MOst of the parties our children have been to (UK, Kazakhstan and Malaysia) have involved huge expense, entertainers, professionally catered food etc. One birthday (7 years old) took place in the best steak restaurant in the country – parents and children fully catered for. Pure madness. Our children’s home made parties always look a little dull in comparison but we are sticking with them!
This year we had a first though – my daughters home made birthday cup cakes brought in to celebrate her birthday with school friends were thrown away by a lot of class mates as home made (and by my daughter I might add) was not good enough!
I think your children’s birthday parties look wonderful.
It was a shock to me too! One of the first parties Ed went to in rural France was four children, a bowl of haribos, playing in the garden and a Disney DVD. They all had a great time and didn’t need anything more. It certainly made me think about doing things in a more simple way too.