I’ve used this picture before. It is a favorite of mine, V and me at age four. I am using it again because it has a picture in the background of my birthday cake. This is the only picture I can recall of any of my numerous birthday parties (Mother where were you and the camera?):
V and I are to the right of the photo, V forward in the darker dress, me over to the right edge of the photo in white. My little brother (now the big-time lawyer) is to the left edge, at age two.
You will notice that we were all dressed up. That’s the way birthday parties were “back in the day.” They aren’t pictured, but you can bet that my mother and the other mothers who were there were not in jeans, either. Everyone dressed for special days back then.
Back to the cake: It was a Circus Cake, complete with carousel top and plastic circus animals on it. I know without asking that my mother purchased this cake from Kohler’s Bakery. It, really, was the only bakery in town for birthday cakes. This was the day before in-store bakeries. We all went to Kohler’s for our special occasion cakes, as well as the occasional cream horn.
Besides a Kohler’s cake, another obligatory element of birthday parties was Hawaiian punch. Back then it only came in the original red recipe in great big cans, like this one. And we only got this sweet-sweet treat (loaded with red dye) at children’s parties. It was served universally at birthday parties and school parties, such as Valentine’s Day.
You will see from my picture that we had the birthday noise makers. I don’t see hats, but they were usual.
Birthday parties back then were fairly simple affairs lasting, maybe two hours at the most. You would have the “gathering period,” where everyone arrived, each with a wrapped package to put on the pile. Then there might be a game or two: Pin the tail on the donkey was a favorite. The donkey picture was taped to the wall. Each child was given a numbered tail with tape, and blindfolded. He or she was then spun around by the hostess mother, and pointed in the right direction to pin his/her tail on the picture. The closest to the correct tail position won some sort of little prize.
After games, birthday girl got to open gifts, after which cake, vanilla ice cream and Hawaiian punch were served on colorful paper plates and the party dissipated.
I was thinking, as I mulled over these memories, that with my own son and, later, with my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, our birthday parties became more and more elaborate. For one thing, they became bigger. See from the picture, my guests were limited to five in addition to me and my brother. I have seen (and hosted) parties with whole class enrollments. Yikes!
And the party activities became more elaborate. It is as if we had to have some central (big) activity around which to center the party, instead of just centering it around the honoree: Horseback riding parties (I’ve done ‘em); parties with clown entertainment (done this, too); Chuck E. Cheez….not just the cake-and-ice cream gathering that were once so prevalent.
But then I thought about one “flash” birthday party my mother allowed in our Meadowcliff home. Truthfully, I think it may have been my brother’s birthday, not mine, but it made an impression on me, for sure.
There was a man who called himself “Cactus Vick.” He dressed as a cowboy and he was connected in some way (announcer, maybe?) with one of the local television stations. He could be hired to host birthday parties, and—here was the hook—he had a little four-horse merry-go-round that he pulled behind his truck!
Yessiree, my mama hired Cactus Vick for one of our birthday parties, and he pulled that little merry-go-round right up into our driveway. We thought that was just the bomb! Every kid in our city knew who Cactus Vick was and children who got him for their parties were the envy of all others.
I can remember discussions about when someone was “too old” to have a birthday party, and I knew girls who were given money instead of a party--$1 per year seemed the going rate, so a girl who relieved her parents of hosting a tenth birthday party could look to score $10, which was big money back then.
My family never did that, but I did transition from the regular birthday party to the “bunking party.” (We never called them “sleepovers” or “slumber parties”), and this became the norm for celebrating birthdays in those pre-teen and early-teen years. V and I had and attended many bunking parties over the years and, having thrown them for my son, I can tell you: Cactus Vick would have been worth his money several times over if you could avoid the expense and sleepless night caused by these sleepovers.
I don’t know why I woke up thinking about birthday parties! I now tend to want any birthday of mine to go off in a very low-key way (now that there is not enough room for the correct number of candles). But, for some reason I did start thinking about pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and Hawaiian punch.
I’d love to hear your birthday memories…C