Everything I Know About Birthday Parties I Learned from My Mother

(Image credit: Courtesy of Paige French)

My mom was the Queen of Birthday Parties.

I’m not sure it was ever her intention to secure that title but, as an innately creative and exceptionally loving person, her natural inclination is to honor each of life’s occasions with the flair and fanfare it deserves — sometimes even more than it deserves.

In our family, a good report card never came without a celebratory dinner; it was never too early for a milkshake to commemorate one of life’s many milestones (as long as you’d recently been to the dentist’s office); and birthdays, well, they were days to go all out. There was not a detail left unnoticed, not an iota of love held back.

I hope that I will one day be the kind of mother who celebrates with her children in a way that’s as deep and committed. My mom has left some pretty big party shoes to fill. Here are three of my very favorite birthday parties.

(Image credit: Alli Hoff Kosik)

An American Girl Tea Party

I was turning 7, and like most little girls in the ’90s, I was caught up in the American Girl craze. The previous Christmas found me eying a conspicuous rectangular box under the tree, which I’d discovered upon carefully removing the paper was a Samantha doll — exactly what I’d wanted.

In the following months, Samantha and I had been inseparable. I was also reading the book series that accompanied the doll, and because one of the books told the story of Samantha’s tea party, it seemed a foregone conclusion that my 7th birthday would be celebrated with a tea party of my own.

Even now, I can remember the way I imagined the petit fours and tea sandwiches described in my Samantha book. It all seemed so romantic — food that was pretty but actually edible, like the props from my dollhouse come to life. I was convinced that tea party food would taste better than the food I usually ate, simply because it looked so beautiful.

Unsurprisingly, my mom was thrilled with the idea of throwing a tea party. What could be cuter than filling our dining room with little girls and their dolls, all clad in party dresses?

The conversation about the food, though, was slightly more complicated. While my mother is an incredible party planner with a meticulous eye for festive details, she will be the first to admit that she is not at her best in the kitchen. Throughout my childhood, she tended to stick to a small rotation of dinner recipes, and we were regular patrons of the Chinese restaurant down the street.

In all of her enthusiasm about planning my birthday parties, I think she found the least satisfaction in coming up with the menu. But my mom’s creativity always trumped her lack of culinary confidence.

For my American Girl tea party, she elevated simple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by cutting them into girly shapes — hearts, flowers, teacups, and dolls with perfect dress silhouettes. To make sure that my friends and I could actually use the beautiful teacups with which she’d set the table, Mom mixed up a delicious strawberry drink — and the simple fact that it was pink made it a success in a room full of first-graders. And for dessert, we decorated square cookies with pastel frostings to make them look like the petit fours I’d imagined.

An International Smorgasbord

A year later — and with the self-assurance of a mom who’d pulled off a wildly successful 7th birthday party — my mother barely flinched when I excitedly shared with her the theme we’d be tackling for my next birthday: the world. You see, that Christmas I’d received a beautifully illustrated student atlas.

In a way that only she could, my mom boldly took on this new challenge, setting up an “Around the World” flow for my party and devising a menu to represent foods from the countries I found most interesting.

She learned to make Swedish meatballs and kebabs. She bought stinky cheese from the fancy part of the grocery store and arranged it on a platter with baguette slices and jam. She perfected her baked ziti recipe! She even picked up my favorite steamed dumplings from our beloved local Chinese restaurant. For a room of second-graders, it was an international smorgasbord beyond our wildest imaginations.

(Image credit: Alli Hoff Kosik)

Red Carpet Birthday Party

As perfect as the first two parties had been, my mom really earned her reputation as a star birthday planner when I turned 9. That summer, we’d gone to see Runaway Bride in theaters, and I was fascinated with Julia Roberts. She was my idol. I spent hours on our dial-up internet, poring over photos of her in various red carpet looks.

For no other reason than my desire to dress up like Julia, I proclaimed that the theme for my 9th birthday party would be the Oscars. My friends were asked to arrive at the party in costume as their favorite movie star, and each of them walked shyly through our foyer on a red plastic table runner while the gathered parents snapped photos from the side.

In hindsight, my Julia Roberts costume was pretty lame (I wore a long paisley skirt and a white blouse; shown above), but the party food was far from it. My mom had filled the snack table with caramel popcorn balls, chocolate-covered strawberries, and star-shaped brownies dusted with white sprinkles to make them sparkle.

We made heaping ice cream sundaes, which, at the time, felt like something so decadent that only movie stars could do it. The highlight of the night was a faux-crystal punch bowl filled with a fizzy homemade juice. My friends and I felt like the height of glamour as we sipped our fancy drinks from plastic champagne flutes and played movie charades.

Years later, a friend from elementary school with whom I’d lost touch reached out to me on Facebook. By way of reconnecting, she referenced my parties. “I still remember that time we dressed up like we were going to an awards show for your birthday. Your mom threw the best birthdays!” she said.

She really did.

Did you have over-the-top birthday parties as a kid? Share your very favorites in the comments!