Birthday parties aren’t what they used to be

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 says.

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 big day.

Birthday blow-outs

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 happen.

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.

Birthday party alternatives

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 altogether.

“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 non-traditional ways.

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 celebratory bonfire.

“You could see that the experience meant a lot to them,” Flannery says.

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 Trevillion.

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.

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