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!
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