When Lisa Hanneman of Wilmette started planning her son
William's first birthday party last year, she was originally
thinking of having a simple backyard barbecue. Then she started
feeling pressure from other people to go bigger.
"One step led to another and next thing I knew, I had over 50
people and a one-man Jamaican band in my front yard," Hanneman
Although she doesn't regret throwing a big bash for her son's
first birthday, Hanneman and her husband have agreed to tone down
future celebrations. "Although we were really touched that so many
people wanted to come and celebrate our family and our kid, we've
agreed that we won't do another big party like this any time soon.
Going forward, I think we are just going to have a small family
party at home," she says.
Birthday parties aren't what they used to be.
Although an at-home birthday party is still the most common way
to celebrate a child's birthday, more and more parents are going to
extremes when it comes to feting the beloved birthday boy or girl.
On the one hand, some families bring in party professionals to
orchestrate elaborate bashes. At the other end of the celebration
spectrum, an increasing number of families are skipping the
traditional party entirely in favor of other ways of marking the
Some parents want their child's birthday party to be unique and
memorable-no matter what the expense. The Chicago area is home to
plenty of local party venues and services that can help make this
At the Lincoln Park location of Sweet and Sassy, birthday girls and
their guests are treated like mini-celebrities-complete with spa
services, fashion makeovers and paparazzi photographs. As part of
the popular PaJama Jam package, pj-clad guests receive
mini-facials, hair styles and a manicure. After the primping and
dancing, the girls enjoy cake and presents and take home plenty of
goodys. Pricing for the two-hour PaJama Jam begins at $625 for 30
people (food and drink not included). Parents can add on a
round-trip ride in the hot pink Sweet and Sassy limo for $175.
"Some parents tell us money is no object," Sweet and Sassy sales
associate Ashley Spencer says. "They just want a really unique
party experience for their daughter." If parents choose to use both
party rooms and add on two round-trip limo rides and goody bags for
the guests, "the PaJama Jam party can easily cost up to $1,500 or
$1,600," she says.
Husband-and-wife team Amy and Neil Rubenstein created a
successful business out of helping parents execute fabulous themed
birthday parties. Their Wheeling-based company, Creative
Celebrations, offers more than 40 different theme parties.
Amy Rubenstein says her business specializes in catering to what
parents want. "We can plan the entire party or just provide the
entertainment and activities. Our services ensure that the birthday
child has a great time and the parents aren't stressed so they can
actually enjoy the party, too."
Creative Celebrations offers themes like Create-a-Book or
Shop-Till-You-Drop where the guests visit five different "shops" in
a mock mall setting. Although the typical party price ranges from
$200 to $500, Creative Celebrations has hosted its share of
over-the-top parties as well.
Rubenstein recalls a "two-hour dance party with four princesses,
face painting, goody bags and decorations. Our client really just
wanted the children to be highly entertained and did not care about
the price. The total cost was a little over $2,000.
Creative Celebrations also put on a four-hour party with four
different themes, invitations, a custom cake, decorations, goody
bags and jumbo cupcakes for everyone to bring home. "Again, this
client just wanted her daughter and her friends to have a great
time and was not concerned about the price at all. The total cost
for this party was just over $5,000," says Rubenstein.
While big birthday bashes certainly create special memories for
the lucky birthday girl or boy, some families choose to modify or
skip the traditional birthday party entirely. Increasingly, parents
are incorporating charity into the celebration or foregoing gifts
"We have friends who asked us to bring a new toy or book to
donate to Children's Memorial Hospital instead of purchasing a
present for their son. I'd love to do something like that in our
family," says Hanneman.
When deciding on alternatives for a child's birthday party, the
popular website Simple Mom recommends "planning activities
that will honor a person, group, business or service that brings
happiness to your child." For example, if a child dreams of
becoming a fireman, party guests can bake cookies and deliver them
to the local fire station as a sign of appreciation.
Other families mark the passing of another year in more
Maureen Flannery of Evanston created a special rite of passage
ritual for her children when they turned 16. Along with a few other
families from her spiritual community, Flannery and her children
participated in a retreat designed to celebrate this significant
milestone. In preparation for the ritual, the birthday child chose
another adult as a guide in the experience.
"The two then worked together to prepare answers to some
important life questions, such as 'What do you seek in your
contribution to society?'" recalls Flannery. The child's parents
prepared a video retrospective and each adult in the group gave the
child a gift in the form of words of wisdom or praise. To conclude
the ceremony, the birthday child joins a circle of adults around a
"You could see that the experience meant a lot to them,"
Even some schools are deciding to skip traditional birthday
celebrations in favor of other gestures.
In response to parents' requests that sweets be eliminated from
the school environment, teacher Cynthia Trevillion of the Chicago
Waldorf School started a tradition of birthday giving with her
eighth-grade class. She asked her students to make a donation to a
charity of their choice on their birthday. The students didn't have
to say how much they donated but they did have to tell their
classmates who they decided to donate to and why. "I felt that at
this age, the students were old enough to honor someone else. This
gesture is a recognition of the person they are becoming," says
Whether birthday celebrations take the form of big theme parties
or intimate family rituals, all have one thing in common-parents
want their kids to feel special on their big day. "I just want my
son to know that we celebrate him and he is surrounded by people
who love him," says Hanneman.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and
part-time freelance writer living in Chicago.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.
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