The festival of 8 continued yesterday with our girlchild's birthday party picnic. It was, if I do say so myself, the most wonderful and joyful birthday party we've ever had. It was the kind of birthday party that I had as a child. In a gentle place under the sun, beneath the shelter of trees generous with their shade. Only not here in Australia, but in the American South. Yesterday was a moment from my past, brought home to different shores. The same thing under different skies.
There were simple games. A paper airplane competition under the lavender haze of a Jacaranda. 'Captain's coming' in the large hemisphere of shade cast by a towering tree.
There was simple food. Lemonade. Homemade sandwiches with the crusts off. Egg salad. Chicken salad. My own hybrid recipes owing their origin to the South, and their finish to here, now. One bite of a chicken salad sandwich and my past and present marry happily ever after.
And then, two things that are so vivid in my mind from my birthdays past, the things that made birthdays feel like birthdays: A Piñata and a Scavenger Hunt.
I have always felt like a birthday isn't really birthday-ish without a piñata. I love them. Yes, I know that it seems wrong to hang a creature (paper or other) by a string from a tree and then beat it with a stick until it is dismembered and disemboweled, and all the kids scavenge through its sugary innards like they are screaming jackals. Especially if you make the mistake of using a person pinata.
I made that mistake earlier this year. I found a pirate for our youngest boychild's birthday, which I thought was perfect. But the candy seemed to loll around in his one good leg and make him hang lopsided. And yes, it was disturbing to watch JMM hang up the piñata at the most logical place (by the neck) and then even more unsettling to watch a bunch of 5 year-old beat a man to pulp, even if that man was made of paper. It was wrong. But if it's an animal, boat or flower? No problem. Unlike my experience, you probably will not have any of the parents present give you withering glances and tell you 'I can't believe you let them kill him like that'. I can almost guarantee it.
This time I found the perfect piñata. A Llama. A Llama Unicorn actually, although initially I didn't recognize it's subtle unicorn qualities (namely the nub-like golden horn). If I had known that it was a unicorn when I was in the piñata shop, I don't think I would have bought it. All of mythology and medieval lore tells me that it is a very, very bad thing to kill unicorns, paper or other. I called him Llama the Piñata. I fed him a strict sugar diet the night before.
And as for the Scavenger Hunt, this was the first time that we've done a proper one. The last time we did one our oldest was 5. The hunt was run in the church sanctuary but it just resulted in more of a wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth kind of experience (which may have had something to do with the fact that I had too many references to church architecture in the clues ... 'Mummy, what is a chancel??"... or perhaps because I had decided to use the party bags as the treasure they were hunting ... or because the clear winner of the hunt was the 9-year-old who told them that all the lolly bags belonged to him now). This year I used the Piñata. It could have ended badly. But it didn't. It was brilliant.
We had Llama the Piñata hanging up under the tree as people arrived. Each child had to almost walk directly under it in order to come to the party. I saw their eyes register the presence of the piñata. Excellent. The creation of desire. My plan was working.
While the kids were crafting their paper Boeings, I took Llama the Piñata down and left an envelope dangling in his place. A clue. And then, while the kids were scrubbing the deck and climbing the rigging with JMM, I lured Llama the Piñata with sugar treats to the perfect hiding spot. Mwa-ha-ha.
Later JMM announced that it's time for the piñata. When they realised that Llama the Piñata was missing and only an envelope dangled from the rope, it was like something out of a pantomime. It sounded like this:
JMM: Okay. Time for the Piñata!
JMM: Everyone line up over here!
JMM: Okay, who's first??
KIDS: (pointing to the envelope) We can't!
JMM: Why?? Don't you want to hit the piñata??.......[JMM has deftly led them to the very line that I had been hoping they'd say. He tossed the line to them like one of those golden apples irresistibly rolling before Atalanta. Like her, they couldn't help but pick it up ....]
KIDS: BUT THERE IS... NO... PIÑATA!!!!!!!!
And the game is afoot. The kids then had to read and decipher the clue in order to start the hunt for the missing Llama the Piñata...which led to the next clue...which led to the next clue....and the next, and so on (all of which I had hidden earlier all over the place. There may have been a near run-in with a wedding party). Until finally they found the missing piñata resting in the stables, and they were able to return to the party victorious, their sacrificial paper llama unicorn in hand.
We strung it back up, and then hit the piñata according to my piñata rules, which are rather elaborate, but add to the suspense and drama that the occasion demands, in my opinion. When the piñata finally dies (which takes a good 15 minutes), their anticipation is at its peak. Llama the Piñata falls to his death and they descend on his papery carcass and eat every last sugary morsel. Success.
It was all so simple, and all so fun. We spent very little. We used what we had. The greatest expense was that thing we all seem to have less and less of: Time. It is a marvel what you can create with it. It was worth every moment of cooking, planning, creating the clues, hiding them. When I watched the kids delighting in the games, and enjoy working together to figure out the clues and then hunt for the next one, I delighted. I enjoyed.
My one regret is that there aren't many photos to show for the day. It was because we were so busy being in the day that I didn't have much or any time to stand back and look at it. We were fully in it. It was kind of like the difference between seeing a sunbeam and experiencing it. When you are outside a sunbeam you see it's edges, watch the dust motes glide in the light. But when you stand in a sunbeam you don't spy its limits, but you feel its warmth, you are bathed in light.
I think the sign of a good party is that you want to do it all over again as soon as it is over. And I did. And I still do. I am now looking for any excuse to fill a piñata and plan an elegant scavenger hunt. To create a good old-fashioned party. I think we'll have to do this again soon.
Maybe I have found my life's calling. I've been wondering if I need to go see a life coach or something. I don't really have the desire to go back to academia. I just love writing, and now, one other thing: running scavenger hunts. If this writing thing doesn't work out, you will find me running children's parties, each one a sunbeam filtering through the trees, straight from my Southern childhood. There will be lemonade. And chicken salad sandwiches. And piñatas. And scavenger hunts. The best scavenger hunts this side of the equator.
I spent a couple of hours after the party washing dishes, putting things away, and trying to nut out the equation that made it all equal wonderful. Was it: Weather + Happiness + Sugar? Or maybe Piñata + Games + Laughter? Or Good Old-Fashioned Fun + Really Great Guests? Or did it all just seem great because I was currently enjoying the Leftover Egg Salad Sandwiches + Champagne? (which is a mighty fine combination, by the way). I think it was all of the above + one other thing:
Age 8. Let all children be 8. And let us, while they are 8, turn their age on its side and make it last for eternity. The eternity of 8. It is a wonderful age.
And, if you find it helpful, here are my piñata rules. They ensure that the playing field is level. This way players of varying ages can all happily play together.
- String a pinata up to a tree. How you get the rope/string over the tree branch is up to you.
- Blindfold the player. Each player is blindfolded snugly (tie it until they say 'ouch'. Jokes. I'm kidding. But seriously, they shouldn't be able to see anything)
- Spin the player around one time for each year of age. An 11-year-old has about the same agility as a 4 year-old after they have been spun around 11 times (No, this is not scientific. It is completely anecdotal). And yes, it does take much looooonger to actual kill the thing when the players can't see and have lost their sense of balance. And yes, it does get a little bit more dangerous when kids are lurching around like drunken sailors swinging a cricket bat at full tilt. So...
- Stand Back. This is probably the most important thing to remember.
- Two swings per person.
- And, one other gem: One at a Time. That's my favourite.
By the way, there may be some fall-out after the piñata carnage. I just found a note from L, in which she tells me, "Llama the Piñata is a unicorn but not a llama" and that she's "sad because we killed him. :(" I'm talking her through the whole papier maché process, and also generously sharing aphorisms like, "but he has to die so that we can eat all the sugar inside!" I think it's helping...
And I'll post my recipes for chicken salad and egg salad sometime when I've taken the time to figure out the ratios of all their yumminess.