LAST MINUTE WONDERLAND TEA PARTY
My younger daughter’s birthday was this month. As it falls fairly near the start of the school year we had to send invitations out at the end of the summer term and so I knew that we had twenty-something children coming. Never mind the Hatter; I am clearly mad. The summer holidays were really hectic and we went away for two weeks at the end of them. This left a few days at the beginning of the September where the children were still off school and we were doing last-minute bits and pieces before term began. Somehow I didn’t really start planning the party properly until a week before it happened! So this is a post with ideas for a very last minute Wonderland birthday party on a fairly large-scale. It will not look like those amazing parties that you see on party planning websites like Kara’s Party Ideas (which I love!). It would be great if every child could have a ‘Drink me’ bottle with a stripy paper straw and an individual toadstool to sit on but it was never going to happen in my back garden. Oh yeah… It was going to be in my back garden and in a week full of days of thirty degree heat the party day was the only one forecast rain!
I wanted to set the scene a bit so I made some very basic bunting from playing cards and hung them around the Wendy house. I also treated us to some beautiful Wonderland teapot bunting by Truly Alice which I hung in the gazebo over the tea-table as well as some matching ‘dainty’ paper napkins which are dainty because they are fairly small which didn’t really matter to me. They were cheaper than buying the Alice plates as I could use cheap supermarket paper plates with a napkin on top. I bought some white card and drew some pictures of Wonderland characters and wrote out a couple of short poems from the book and then stuck these to garden canes and dotted them around the garden just to add a bit more atmosphere. The Cheshire cat I suspended from the branch of a tree at the very last-minute where he got progressively soggier. I had also planned to decorate the tea-table with a selection of teapots, cups and other bits and pieces like red roses and a large brass key but I just ran out of time in the end and it didn’t really matter.
Last year my daughter had a Faraway Tree themed party and I tried to think up a load of appropriately entitled games like ‘Elf, Elf, Pixie’ instead of ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ but, actually, most of the children just wanted to run about the garden, play on the swings and slide and cram into the Wendy house. So this year I decided to keep it simple.
I bought four inflatable flamingos (you can buy them from Amazon and presumably from party shops) and stuck playing cards on plastic croquet hoops from an old ELC set to make the Wonderland croquet game. I also drew a sort of face and spines on a tennis ball minutes before everyone arrived. It didn’t look much like a hedgehog but never mind… The children spent most of the time hitting each other with the flamingos anyway. At one point, there was also a hospital for sick flamingos running in the Wendy house. Children are odd. I also popped into a large supermarket and picked up eleven cardboard grape crates from their free cardboard box bin. I spent a fiver on a huge roll of white paper from Hobbycraft (conveniently situated next to the supermarket) and spent quite a lot of time wrapping these up and drawing on them with Sharpies. (I also wasted a fair bit of time looking for the Sharpies before my mother took pity on me and bought me a new packet. The original pens were eventually discovered at the bottom of a toy box a few days post-party.) The idea was that these were playing cards with which to build your own house of cards and then have fun knocking over. This sort of idea had worked really well with a Frozen party a couple of years ago where we had a heap of white boxes for building and destroying ice towers. At this year’s party they weren’t played with much because it was just too rainy to have them outside in some space and so they had to be squeezed inside the gazebo where they sort of got overlooked. They are remaining in the garden as a magpie climbing frame until I can squeeze them into our recycling bin. I also provided a load of blown up red balloons with white hearts on them.
Activities-wise we had biscuit decorating and bookmark making. I got a couple of packets of flattish rectangular biscuits and provided water icing and tubs of sugar hearts and jelly diamond cake sprinkles. Tadaaa – playing card biscuits. I invested in a heart-shaped hole punch from Hobbycraft and some ribbon with hearts on it for threading through the hole. Then I bought some heart-shaped stickers to stick over the back of the playing cards which were emblazoned with my husband’s work’s logo. (Fortunately he had brought home a couple of dozen boxes of these cards a couple of years ago when they were being thrown out at work.) We then wrote the children’s names on mini post-its and stuck them onto the finished bookmarks so we could tell whose was whose.
We also had a ‘treasure hunt’ of sorts. These are excellent if you have the space, although they don’t work inside unless you have a very big house. My elder daughter’s fourth birthday party had a fairy theme and the idea was that the guests would hunt round the garden for tiny pink foil confetti fairies which should have taken quite a while. Unfortunately it poured with rain and I couldn’t send ten little girls in party frocks and sandles out into the sodden garden while their mothers sat and watched. So they hunted round my living room while their mothers sat and watched. It took about three minutes. For the next birthday we had a hunt for seashells (seaside theme) in ‘buckets’ the children made and decorated. You just get a rectangle of card, make four cuts and fold it into a basket sort of shape, staple and staple on a cardboard handle, then cover in stickers. This also worked for the Faraway tree party where they hunted for golden acorns. My elder daughter also had a Rainbow Magic Fairies party (I know, I know!); anyone who has read one or more of these books know that there are always lost magic items that need to be restored to the appropriate fairy in order to defeat Jack Frost which means that you can just hide a load of random stuff and get the children to find it and tick it off. So, for a Wonderland party we hid dozens of playing cards all around the garden. The children were asked to find five cards and bring them to the adults. We then added up the cards and there was a prize for the highest score and for finding the only Queen of Hearts card hidden.
For the party tea it had been tempting to make sandwiches in the shape of hearts or teacups using cookie cutters but I loathe making sandwiches for birthday parties. They are supposed to keep fresh if you place a slightly damp tea-towel over the plate, meaning you can make them in advance, but they are still a massive faff, use stacks of bread and mostly end up uneaten in the bin. I resisted temptation and provided bread sticks and cheese twists in kilner jars. My daughters decorated unwrapped Babybels with dots stuck over the red waxy stuff to look like toadstools but they weren’t hugely successful as the dots kept peeling off and they also used some unfungus-like colours of sticker. Another problem with party food is that jugs of squash are a cheap and easy drink option but the paper or plastic cups always get kicked over, especially if you are eating outside. I bought a load of Fruitshoots on offer at the supermarket, took the labels off and replaced them with my own ‘Drink me’ labels. If I’d had the time and/or a working printer I could have made these much fancier but, again, it didn’t really matter. I couldn’t find reasonably priced red jam tarts in the shops and didn’t have time to make my own but I don’t think many children are that keen on them anyway so I just used jammy dodger biscuits instead. I did have a go at making those little teacup and saucer biscuits you may have seen on Pinterest. I used pink and white marshmallows, broke up pretzels to make handles which I tuck into the side of the upside down marshmallows, used a bit of water icing to stick a chocolate button on top and then stuck the whole thing onto a party ring biscuit with a bit more icing. They went down a storm! If I had had the time I would have made fairy cakes and iced ‘eat me’ onto each one but, like the Mad Hatter, Time wasn’t my friend. I bought French Fancies instead, planning to stick ‘eat me’ labels into them with cocktail sticks but I didn’t even get around to that in the end.
A quick search of the web will show you that there have been thousands of amazing Alice-themed cakes made: elaborate Hatter’s hats, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Cheshire cats, etc. I realised that if I attempted something like this in the time available to me it would only end in tears. I was really tempted to buy one of those open book cake tins in Hobbycraft and make an actual book cake but I knew that, honestly, that way lay madness. My daughters had asked for a white rabbit bottom going into the rabbit hole so I decided to go ahead with that. I made my daughter’s favourite cake (chocolate) and covered it with chocolate fudge icing. I will confess that my attempts to multitask the day before the party failed epically and I ended up completely ruining my go-to icing recipe (Delia Smith’s). Again, my mother took pity on me and bought me three tubs of emergency Betty Crocker’s instead and it was a revelation! It did mean that the cake was pretty squidgy and I didn’t think parents would thank me for sending their children home with that smushed into a paper napkin so I just served it up at the party on nice china plates to those who wanted it. The rabbit (mostly bottom but with some back legs, top of head and ears) was made of large lump of white icing. I coloured some scraps to make paw pads and earlining for him and I used a big, fluffy white pom-pom stuck on with sugar glue for the tail. Then I stuck candles in around him. It wasn’t an amazing-looking cake but…children don’t actually care! I discovered this when I made a foolhardy attempt to make a Frozen cake with platforms.
Stress or panic temporarily made me into the world’s worst cake maker and my base cake came out with a huge hole in it which we covered with a ‘fozen lake’ of cardboard covered in metal foil. The rest of the cake was wonky and amateur and at the very last minute the plastic cake topper Elsa’s arm fell off and had to be stuck back on with sugar glue (one of the best ever inventions!). No one cared! While I cringed with embarrassment at bringing this monstrosity out (one of the mums there made her own wedding cake) the children were disturbingly enthralled by it and in the end I had to take it back to the kitchen to cut up because some of them were actually starting to pull bits off it in their over-excitement. So, probably fifty-percent of the children didn’t realise it was a rabbit going down a hole but it didn’t matter. The cake was brought in, song sung, candles blown out in a matter of minutes so I was so glad I hadn’t busted a gut over it. Everyone was happy!
I used to love party bags and put a lot of effort into them. My elder daughter always had small-scale parties for which it was possible to put a lot of love into those bags along with the cake. For her seaside birthday we gave out yellow metal seaside buckets filled with pretty shells, shredded paper ‘seaweed’, pink shrimp sweets, bubbles in an ice cream cone-shaped contained and other appropriate items. For her Rainbow Magic party guests were given a rainbow striped gift bag with a Rainbow Magic book inside. Larger scale parties are a different matter. It is so expensive to fill over twenty bags with something vaguely decent, especially if you are a slave to your theme. For the Frozen party I thought it would be a good plan to buy paper bags, stick snowflake stickers on them and make my own snowflake necklaces using eBay-sourced materials. World of pain. Last year the Faraway Tree party ended up going way-off theme and way-over budget as I had ordered a load of stuff online that turned out to be of terrible quality when they arrived meaning I had to do a last-minute dash around the shops for replacements. This year I resolved to cut the tat and cut the bill. I bought the 22-book set of Helen Oxenbury’s mini-books of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, put these in envelopes, got my elder daughter to label and decorate them, stuck on a little pack of the ubiquitous Haribo and called it a day. One of the guest’s younger sister ended up coming to the party and she took home an inflatable flamingo which went with her everywhere for the next couple of days, riding in a doll’s buggy. If it had been financially viable flamingos would have made a great alternative going-home gift for everyone.
So, party enjoyed and over. I am hoping next year will just be a couple of friends round to play…