The Surprises of Our First English Birthday Party


My family and I have recently moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Bradford-on-Avon, England, for a year. Our mission: try out life at a slower pace. In my new series Brooklyn to England, I’ll write about the weekly adventures of living in the English countryside with my British husband, our three-year-old daughter, and my baby-bump (I’m due in September!). Come with me as I go from strollers to prams, diapers to nappies, and whatever else it takes to raise a family abroad.

After wangling an invitation last week, the fam and I were very excited to put on our party dresses and head over to the masonic hall for little Leila’s birthday party. I was intrigued by the idea of an event at a masonic hall — would there be a secret handshake; passwords to learn? — but alas, it was just a room (with one definitive feature: a huge poster of the Queen). Turns out, lots of people rent the 16th century ex-church house for parties and events, and it was perfect for 15 kids, parents, and a small bouncy castle.

As rain pummeled the streets of Bradford-on-Avon, we skittered into the old stone building, soggy, and carrying an even soggier gift. Within seconds, we had already committed our first two birthday party faux pas.

  1. We misspelled the birthday girl’s name. As the banner taped to the wall clarified, it was Leila with an ‘ei’, not an ‘ay’. Annoyingly, we’d agonized over various spellings for 15 minutes before writing the card. Whoops!
  2. (And a far worse crime) We were the first guests to arrive. Nothin’ like a little small-talk with complete strangers to get a party started, am I right?

Once a few more (drenched, cold, cranky) kids arrived, it turned out to be a pretty fun party. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with a bouncy castle. So far, things were pretty normal, from a U.S. to UK standpoint. There were snacks (ham, cheese, grapes, cucumber, bear-shaped potato crisps), games (kiddie bowling, hula hoops, princess dresses), and music (it’s not the ‘hokey pokey’ in England, but the ‘hokey cokey’, FYI).

But then came dessert. See, coming from Brooklyn, I’m used to the “free” birthday party scene — gluten free, sugar free, nut free, dairy free. That’s the norm. So, imagine my amazement when a tray of chocolate-covered ‘fingers’ (think Twix, without the caramel) landed on the food table. Soon after, Leila’s mom came out with a tray of ice lollies (popsicles). With vanilla and chocolate dripping down our hands, we were then offered a second ice lolly, because there were so many extras. After that, a tray full of jelly (Jell-O) appeared. And then, of course, an elaborately decorated princess cake (because the English can decorate the sh*t out of a cake, let me tell you).

To be fair, most of us parents in the room took the brunt of the sweets intake, biting huge chunks of Jell-O and stuffing our mouths with chocolate fingers in order to stave off toddler chaos. It worked, but only for a while. Inevitably, the sugar kicked in, and when it did, the highs got higher, and the lows, lower. The bouncy castle became a mosh pit. Space hoppers fired across the room like hand grenades.

Between the rage, laughter, and tears came another new-to-me birthday tradition called ‘Pass the Parcel’. It’s a great party game, starting out like musical chairs with a big present being passed around the circle from one child to the next. When the music stops, whoever has the present gets to peel off one layer of wrapping paper and collect a prize. The game goes on and on until the whole parcel is unwrapped and every child has a small gift — in this case, Hello Kitty hair barrettes and (you guessed it) more chocolate.

Throughout the party, my husband and I did our best to make small talk and “work the room”. We were funny but not weird; charming but not cloying. Laying the groundwork for future encounters. I think we did pretty well until, eventually, the party came to an end. We were each given our party bags, which held another English custom: Instead of eating the edible diorama (I mean the cake), we were given our chocolatey slices wrapped up in a napkin to take home—a welcome tradition, considering the amount of sugar we’d already consumed. 

And that was it. After raining mercilessly for two hours straight, the skies dried up. In fact, when we walked outside, it was like stepping into OZ. The sun shone, birds sang, and aside from the one-foot-high flooded the streets that would take several hours to empty back into the river, we had a glorious (albeit sugar-shocked) walk home.

Photo: Getty