Cultural differences

Birthday Celebration

1:36 PM

I intended to blog about this earlier, but got caught up in that mayhem called life instead…Ishita had her 4th Birthday this month.

This year we decided to keep it simple, for a while I toyed with the idea of doing it at home, because that’s what we do in Switzerland, and I did it once when she turned 2. But realised that if everybody came I would have about 15 kids, and as many parents, and that would just not do it in a tiny Mumbai size flat. Not to mention the having to whip up enough food to feed the crowd, and come up with enough games to keep the little ones entertained while still trying to be a good hostess to my grown up guests, and at the end of the party being left with a giant mess to clean. My Indian friends have understood something that very few in Switzerland do: what matters in a party is that all have fun and that there are no medals being given to the hostess for having made the perfect cake, having the most inventive out of this world birthday theme, and that there is no shame whatsoever leaving it to the pros.
So this year I went the very popular Pizza Hut route, you book the party in advance giving them a deposit of 1000 rupees, then give them the head count just before the party starts, at which point you also order the adult meal that is not part of the birthday package, and let them do the rest. All you need to do is provide a cake, and return gifts if you haven’t opted for their all inclusive package. Pizza Hut also gives you the option of hiring some extra entertainment in some outlets (including the one we went to) so I booked a magician and a tattoo artist since kiddos that young tend to loose interest half way through a game of musical chairs.
The magic show was a big hit, not only with the kiddos who were all fascinated by it (kid you not Ishita is still trying to get a white mouse to pop out of her plastic pots and pans), but us grown up say our inner child pop out too. I still find it amazing that in our technology obsessed world we all still find making a white dove appear out of a pan awesome.
Of course another win of doing a kid’s birthday party in a fast food joint is that you won’t have to worry about kids not liking the food, Pizza is a hit, all kids love it to some extent (even if some will just eat the cheese topping and leave the crust), then once the party is over, you leave it all to the staff to deal with the dishes, and spills.
In all my childhood my mom used to be the master of ceremony, and I think only once did she went the Mc D route realising that that particular year she could simply not do it. See my own birthday is in June, in Switzerland that means the end of the school year approaching, and along with it, all the extra-curricular classes throwing some sort of recital or shows. My mom was a playschool teacher back then, and not only did she have to plan her own school’s end of the year picnic and fair, she was also part of my school’s parents committee, had to watch our Gymnastics gala, end of drama class plays, and keep an eye on our school’s schedule for excursions, trips and special day…and bam in the middle of it came my Birthday, a mere few days before the official end of school year. That meant planning a birthday bash with grand parents and family on a Sunday, and throwing another one for me and my school friends…In a country and culture where people have to do it all themselves. Few were and still few are the all inclusive options offered by professionals for that type of events. The only thing most moms started really doing when I was a child and do it even more eagerly these days was to order the birthday cake from the bakery. My mom tried one year to make me my favourite carrot cake, but failed as the baker’s genes skipped her generation. But she was all over the rest of the planning.
There are some significant differences in how kid’s birthday parties are thrown in Switzerland and India though, which end up making the outsourcing the party far more logical around here. Here is a list of how birthdays are celebrated for kids in India nowadays:

1) Parents usually tag along to a kid’s birthday party in India, so your child might have 20+ same age friends, but you need to plan a party for 40+ guests as one parent will be there, along with possibly a sibling or two.
In Switzerland only the child guest comes, is dropped at the venue, and picked up by the parent at the end of the party.

2) Games are played first in India, as with all party and social gathering, food is served last signalling to the guests that the party has drawn to an end. In Switzerland the food and cake come first, then the games and play time.

3) Gifts are never opened in front of the giver in India, it is rude to do so. You put the gift aside after thanking the person and open them all after the party is over and your guests have left. In Switzerland the proper etiquette is to open the gift in the giver’s presence and thank them profusely for it. The reason being that most gifts have been chosen carefully with the birthday person in mind, and the giver wants to make sure the person really like the gift. In India you also don’t have to thank the person after opening the gift, thank you notes are a big thing in the West were if you haven’t been able to thank the person face to face you are required to send such a note.

4) Birthday parties in India usually include a meal on the heavy side before the cake, even if the party is at 5pm and it’s nowhere near dinner time. Which is one reason why Pizza and Burger Joints have become a popular choice, the cake is considered dessert. In Switzerland the typical Birthday party is done after school, around 4pm, and falls at that tea-time snack time we usually call “Gouter” in French, so the cake is the prime dish and sides are little non heavy on the tummy finger sandwiches and popcorns or potato chips in bowls. meal time usually come at 7pm in Switzerland so it’s proper manner not to over stuff your guests at a tea-time birthday party.

5) In India the birthday kid cuts one slice of the cake along with their parents and sample the cake, it is often still custom to smash some of said cake in the kid’s face. Then the cake is taken away to be cut and served along with the rest of the food to the guests. In Switzerland, the cake is served to all the guests at the same time right after the candle has been blown, the birthday kid gets the first slice and there is no cake face, playing with food in Switzerland is regarded as rude and tacky and no occasion warrants a change in that rule.

6) In India you usually add enough candles for the right age, but add an extra one for good luck. So for a kid aged 4 you have 4 candles plus a 5th one for the year to come. In Switzerland it’s the age number of candles and nothing else, but we do the birthday candle wish which is said to come true only if you blow out all the candles in one blow, and led to the existence of candles that will not blow and instead light themselves back on their own to kid the birthday person.

7) All the parties I have been to with Ishita had bigger return gifts than back home. It seems to be custom to give something that has a significant enough size of value in India, such as a whole box of pencils or photo frame. All the parties I have been to in Switzerland usually have very simple goodie bags including candies and a small trinket such as a whistle, one fun pen or pencil, or jar of bubble soap.

8) Cakes are never homemade in India, and are usually decorated in colourful cartoon butter cream icing (fondant is now becoming popular too). As my parents commented on the various cakes we had for Ishi’s birthdays, the look very “American”. The typical Swiss cake was until the 80’s mostly baked at home and supremely simple, no fancy icing work, the popular ones are carrot cakes and sponge cakes with no filling, and parents usually buy marzipan and sugar decoration at the store to make it a bit more fancy for a party. If the cake was store bought, and many were starting to be so in my childhood it was the generic black forest, or “mille feuilles” bought a few hours before the party at your local bakery, the baker would doodle “Happy Birthday” on it, give you the candles, and possibly add a few generic sugar flowers to it. No Disney character cakes then. And I suspect the fancy cake thing is a recent trend in India too.

If you are an expat in India and plan to make your own cake you need to be careful about one thing : eggs are considered non-vegetarian and while many will not mind eggs in a cake, the strictly vegetarian families will not touch it, so unless you have a very good eggless recipe, do not attempt making your own cake out of respect for your guests. All bakeries do eggless cakes.

And I’ll conclude that post with the cake Ishita chose for her birthday party this year:


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Before heading to the bakery she had her mind set on a princess cake, but the catalogue had a “Hello Kitty” cake and she suddenly changed her mind wanting that one. That bakery is catching up with the new trend of fondant covered cakes so this is what this cake had on top, the inside was chocolate. And that huge 3D Hello Kitty was entirely made of fondant that Ishita tried to eat the day after the party but gave up upon as it was hard as rock.

4 comments

  1. Beatrix8:13 PM

    Happy B-DAY Ishi!!! (Hello Kitty ROCKS!!)

    "Gifts are never opened in front of the giver in India, it is rude to do so."

    I did not know that. Hmmm. Oh well, my husband's family does not celebrate birthdays anyway.

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  2. DH says birthdays we not celebrated hugely in his family either growing up, I think the whole kid party and cake thing is fairly recent a trend. The only birthday that is a big deal in his family is the first birthday where you invite a huge amount of people, we did that for Ishi's 3rd birthday because both the previous ears we were full in the boxes moving across the country and DH was starting new jobs both times.

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  3. Hélène H5:32 PM

    That's a great post, and such a sweet cake ! Happy belated birthday to Ishita !

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