Havana, Cuba -- After my daughter enrolled in a private international school in Havana this year, I’ve been introduced to the widespread epidemic of over-the-top children’s birthday parties. The invitations began arriving in my daughter’s backpack during the first week of school, and they haven’t stopped since. The first party we attended left me stunned. Between the pony rides, the professional waitstaff and DJ, and a gorgeous estate with a pool, treehouse, and playground equipment, I had no idea how I’d compete when my children’s birthdays rolled around.
So, a few weeks before my daughter’s birthday, I decided my goal was not to compete. Instead I thought, that I'd try to make it fun yet simple — but certain things kept on getting in the way.
For one thing, the guest list was complicated. On the plus side, my kids’ birthdays are twenty days apart, so I could combine their celebrations. The trickier part was figuring out whom to invite. It seemed customary at my daughter’s school to invite the entire grade, which consisted of 30 children. Also, I was dealing with a different culture that did not include drop off and pick ups of children at parties. Here, an invite sent to the children also meant an invite for parents, brothers, and sisters, grandparents, extended cousins, and whomever else your guests might bump into en route to the party. I did some quick multiplication and estimated that should everyone say yes, we were looking at a party of at least 150 people. And that was after some swift screening — right off the bat, I’d decided to leave off the kids, families, and teachers from my son’s preschool. (Teachers from my daughter’s school, however, were invited.)
I picked a date that would hopefully reduce the number of attendees. The date fell in between the birthdays of my children and coincided with the start of a weeklong vacation at my daughter’s school. (Surely, many families would take advantage of the holiday week to go to Cancun and other beach destinations.) An added bonus was that my in-laws and an aunt-in-law would be in town. Not only would I have a few extra helping hands for the party, but I would have “mules” from the United States who could bring gifts and the enormous quantity of candy — about 25 pounds — I estimated that I’d need to fill the large piñata I was making from scratch, in the shape of a snowman named Olaf.
I suppose I could have kept it simple by buying a piñata, but the ones I saw at the sad party store near our house looked limp and apt to split apart with the weight of a few M&Ms. So when my good friend Adriana, a proud Mexican, offered to teach me how to make the most important of party accessories (especially in Latin America), I jumped at the opportunity. It was all part of a grand plan that Adriana had for me, I suspect. She’s been trying to Mexicanize me for some time, which started not long ago with teaching me how to make corn tortillas from scratch.
In any case, over several days in the weeks leading up to my daughter’s birthday, Adriana and I spent hours in my kitchen hunched over a project that involved cardboard boxes, paper maiche, and homemade glue. Three days before the party, while the piñata was still drying, I sent off the invitations in my daughter’s backpack. Not only was it normal to send out last-minute invitations in Cuba, but I also hoped that this would further reduce the number of attendees at our party. That evening, after my daughter returned home, I learned that another child in the grade would be holding a party at the same day and the same time. One mother sent a text, apologizing for not being able to come to ours. “How are we supposed to be two places at once?” “Que pena!” I wrote, but secretly I was pleased with my luck; I was certain that there would be no zoo at our home.
But then, the night before the party, with only a handful of families having RSVP’d, I began to wonder if the party would be too small. I reached out to some of the parents to see if they intended on coming and received another one or two yes’s, but otherwise, no one else responded.
The day of the party, I didn’t have much time to worry. That morning, I sent our visiting family members, my husband, and my son out of the house. My daughter and I put the finishing touches on the Olaf piñata, using a glue gun borrowed from an American friend, since that tool is one of those countless things that don’t exist in Cuba. I was impressed with how far they’d come from my childhood. In just a few minutes, we’d stuck on the arms, made of avocado branches from our backyard, eyes made of aluminum foil and paper maiche, and a nose from a plastic toy carrot.
With Olaf complete, my daughter and I gathered up the huge bags of candy that Grandma and Grandpa had brought and began stuffing packets of Twizzlers, Starbursts, Sour Patch Kids, Sweet Tarts (and other non-chocolate candy that wouldn’t melt in the Havana sun) into the snowman's gut. Even though the piñata was nearly three feet tall, it turned out only to have the capacity for one and a half of those giant Costco-sized bags. That was all the better for my daughter, to whom all the candy were novelties. Only a few days before had she tried Skittles for the first time. We opened the little bags together one by one, both of us savoring each new mouth-watering (and sometimes mouth-puckering) candy as we sat together in an armchair. When all the enjoyment was done, she proclaimed that the Sour Patch Kids were her favorite. That was the last quiet moment before the family returned and a procession of things and people began to arrive.
In our backyard, we decorated with balloons and streamers and set up a face painting station. Rather than hiring a professional face painter, I’d bought a couple of face painting kits from Amazon and enlisted the help of our nanny to paint the kids’ faces. Our driver dropped off a gorgeous cake; a few days before, I’d sifted through my son’s toy car collection, extracted a Lightening McQueen and a Mater, and took them to a friend who owns a bakery. The toys, rarities in Cuba, inspired the chef to create a gorgeous, edible work of art. A whole roasted pig and a bunch of fixings like salad, rice, and beans arrived in the backseat and trunk of an old Russian Lada, costing $130. A man from the nearby party store began to inflate a bouncy castle rented for $35. A famous puppeteer, the Jim Henson of Cuba, arrived to set up for his one-hour show for the bargain price of $50; after the show, I tipped him $10.
All told, with the cost of overtime for my staff and a budget for drinks for the adults, we spent $300, plus the cost of two bats. The piñata was so durable that the bats — one of plastic and another branded Nerf — broke before the piñata split open, sending the kids careening to the ground to collect all the candy. The children suddenly morphed into the most powerful, efficient vacuum cleaner I've ever seen in my life, sucking up all the strewn contents of the piñata within a couple minutes.
And my worry about too few people showing up turned out to be completely unwarranted. Friends began arriving at the appointed time and by the time the puppet show was set to begin, several dozen children, along with their siblings and parents and teachers, and a few errant grandparents and visiting out-of-town friends, had gathered in our backyard, making plenty of merry. Though I knew that last-minute invitations and parties arriving en masse to parties were customary, I learned that day that RSVP’s were not.
After the party, I asked my daughter what her favorite part of the day had been. Had it been the puppet show, in which she’d been hoisted onto the tall stage to float and dance with The Little Mermaid? Had it been when everyone had sung Happy Birthday to her brother and her? Or had it been when the piñata had finally broken open? Nope, she said. Her favorite part of the day had been that morning, when she and I were putting the final touches on Olaf and getting ready for the party, the two of us enjoying a quiet moment alone. That was when I realized it didn’t matter if it had been a party of eighty or a party of two, what mattered was that we were there, together.