Day Before the Eighth Birthday
Abby: Mom, I don’t want it to be my birthday.
Mom: What? Why not?
Abby: Because then it will be over and I’ll have to wait a whole ‘nother year for it to come again.
We have this same conversation every year — which is amazing to me, because between the classroom doughnuts, the annual restaurant-picking ritual, the party with friends, and the cousins-and-grandparents get-together, we seem to be celebrating Abby’s birthday all year long. All year long, it’s on her mind. “Where should my party be this year?” she’ll ask on New Year’s. “What restaurant are we going to on the night of my birthday?” she’ll ask in the middle of her sister’s February birthday dinner. “What should the theme of my party be?” She asked when I picked her up from camp one day in July.
I don’t want to pretend that this is hard work. All of us got into picking the theme this time, submitting our best proposals to the Birthday Boss.
How about an “almost-sleepover” party?
An upside down party?
A British tea party?
A soccer party?
Not all my friends play soccer.
A secret agent party, like Phoebe’s 9th?
We did that already.
A Drive-by Truckers party?
We wracked our brains. What did Abby love more than anything else in the world. More than her LaLaLoopsy dolls, more than Lemony Snicket, more than flying down a soccer sideline?
Once Andy threw out Japan as a theme we wondered what took us so long to get there. Abby’s idea of happiness has always been miso soup, shrimp shumai, and chicken teriyaki, followed by a private screening of Totoro.
Here’s what we ended up doing…
Candy Sushi! For twelve girls I made two sheets of Rice Krispie Treats, cutting them into round and square sushi-size pieces. Then I proceeded to load two trays (one for each side of the table) with some world-class junk: Swedish fish, gummy worms, jelly beans, Airhead Extremes (the rainbows), Dots, chewy Now-and-Laters, green Fruit-by-the-Foot (which stood in for the seaweed and is truly, hideously repulsive), and sour peach strips that were a dead ringer for ginger. (I think as I type this a week and a half later, the girls are just now coming off their sugar rush.) To make things a little easier for everyone — I chopped up a bunch of the candy into bite size pieces so they’d fit nicely on or around the rice patties.
Ninja and Headbands. It was my friend Rebecca’s idea to have the girls make their own Ninja headbands. This amounted to buying a large swath of white spandex-y stuff at our local fabric store, cutting it into a dozen wide strips, then giving the girls Sharpies to decorate them. I wrote a few key Japanese words on the kitchen chalkboard that I thought the girls would like to write on their bands. (Japanese words courtesy of Google Translate. If you’re still unsure about Google’s power over the universe, this app should clinch it for you.)
After making the headbands we had a marathon game of Ninja.This is the coolest party game — mostly because you don’t need a single piece of gear to play it. (Other than the headbands, of course.) As simple as it is, it can be hard to explain, but I’ll try:
1) Two kids stand a foot or two across from each other (within reachable distance) and at the same time shout “NinJA!” When they say the “JA” part, each strikes a dramatic Ninja pose.
2) Taking turns, each kid has one ninja strike to reach across and tag the other’s arm. If your arm is tagged, it goes behind your back. You lose when both arms have been tagged.
There are ways to play this in a circle, which is how the girls learned it at camp, but we had the guests find partners and face off each other, mixing up the pairings every few minutes. If none of this makes any sense to you, watch this video, or ask your kids — who no doubt already know how to play — to explain it to you.
Pass the Parcel This game is a staple of all our birthday parties. For those of you unfamiliar with how to play, you buy as many gifts as you have guests — little gifts, like packs of gum or stickers, or in this case, Japanese erasers from Amazon and little trinkets from Kinokuniya in NYC — plus one larger one that will be the winning gift. You wrap that gift first, then you wrap each subsequent gift in its own layer, creating a parcel with as many layers of giftwrap as there are gifts. The kids sit in a circle and pass the parcel around to music. When the music stops, whoever is holding the parcel gets to unwrap one layer and keep the gift that falls out. Obviously, you want to time it so that everyone gets to unwrap a layer. But once everyone has a little gift and only the big one remains, you can stop the music randomly. This makes it a little more exciting for everyone.
Japanese sodas, procured from a local Asian grocer. Strawberry for the guests, pineapple for the birthday girl.
Dinner The meal was fairly simple: Three dozen California Rolls and three 1-pound packages of Trader Joe’s Shrimp Tempura. Just in case someone wasn’t into the menu we had Hebrew National pigs-n-blankets waiting in the wings — but waited for a complaint before offering them. (Why? What would you choose between California rolls and hot dogs if you were eight years old? Or 40?)
6:30 Welcome! Hang out, jump around, chit-chat, etc. Goal here is to ride the party anticipation and kill 15 minutes without doing any work.
6:45 Make Your Own Ninja Headbands
7:15 Dinner and Happy Birthday Singing
7:30 Make-Your-Own Candy Sushi. We figured as long as they were already at the table, we’d keep ’em there.
7:45 Pass the Parcel
8:00 Celebrity – Japanese Edition. Three teams, forty names in the pot — we mixed in some famous Japanese characters like Astrokid, Pikachu, Hello Kitty, Totoro, and Sushi Mike, the proprietor of our local Japanese restaurant with the obligatory Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas. We play the three-round version of Celebrity: Round 1 – You can use as many words as you like to describe the mystery name to your team. Round 2 – You only have three words. And Round 3, no words, all charades. Girls loved it. And again, no gear, just paper and pens.
8:30 Open gifts
Abby’s Grandfather kept track of how many points each team got in Celebrity, a resonsibility he took very seriously.
The girls helped assemble the goody bags: cellophane bags filled with a chocolate lollipop from our local Asian grocer plus a few Ninja dolls from Oriental Trading. We turned office labels into Japan flags with a black Sharpie and a red magic marker.
PS: In case you are wondering where the kids are — all the party photos were taken a few hours before they arrived. The Zen vibe you are admiring from afar? Gone…as soon as the first little Ninja warrior walked in the front door.