We just loved “fêtes,” special days of any kind, and with six children had more than our fair share. For starters, we celebrated a collective eight birthdays a year, every year! Which gave us quite a few excuses to party and give presents.
We put a lot of effort into making birthday and other presents special. Living through a period when so many “toys” were available for eager children and adolescents made that easy. From Playmobil, Knex and Barbie (complete with her RV!) through the various generations of video game consoles to PCs and ipods, you name it, they got it! Once we had broken the ice with a device or gadget for one child, it became almost overnight “de rigueur” for any of the others who might want one. And the others did tend to want one!
By way of one example of our present-giving process at home, in 2003 we gave the four older children their first cell phones for their respective birthdays. This was after years of increasing stress at home because of too many adolescent demands on our land lines. We even prepared an hourly and daily calendar allocating land line phone time to each of the four older children! It did not solve the problem of scarcity, although it did reduce the number of squabbles on the topic.
By the time the cell phones arrived, Nick was already 17, Daphné 16 and Alban and Tom 14. In fact, having already made Daphné and Nick wait for their birthday presents that year, we bought them and Alban their first phones on the latter’s birthday: Tom received his on his 14th birthday three weeks later. They had been pursuing the phones, and we had been holding out against the increasing monthly expense, for a while already. More and more of their buddies at school had their own phones, which built the pressure on the parents.
Each was thrilled with the cell phone, and once they had them, it was hard to remember what life had been like without them. With that wonderful child’s ability to master what is new, almost through intuition as much as logic, each adapted to the new style of phone as if she or he had been using one all her or his life! Plus, being able to call each of them when he or she was out and about was a delight for us parents.
Charlie and Alex received their first cell phones significantly younger than the older children, maybe 10 or 12. More and more of their buddies at school had their own phones earlier and earlier. Social pressure among your child’s peers is very hard for a parent to resist. The same chain of events occurred with the upgrade to smartphones like the iPhone, again giving us desirable gifts across the board, and again enabling the younger to benefit earlier than their older siblings.
“Birthday party” rolls off the tongue as easily and well as “birthday present.” We had quite a few birthday parties, mostly hosted at home, but a few at places like Disneyland or the Boardwalk. Unfortunately, much as we would have liked to, we found that it really didn’t work to try to give each of the children a birthday party each year. Needless to say, they would have been fine with that arrangement, but each party took a fair bit of parental time and effort! So we would do occasional single-person parties here and there, or combine the parties into one.
That’s how it worked the first year we were together, 1994, when we gave all of the children a collective party for Christmas early in December. Each invited his or her school friends, and all went wild at the party and otherwise displayed signs of approving of what we had done. Tom made out like a bandit earlier that year, because grandma arranged for us all to go to Disneyland the weekend of his birthday, and his birthday dinner was spent in the California Grill in the Paris Disneyland!
Then there were the celebrations that all of us shared more easily, because they were for everybody. Top of the list, of course, is Christmas. Year in, year out, first came the build-up of decorating and preparing for the holidays, and then Christmas itself, and then that wonderful aftertaste of enjoying the presents. It is safe to say that we collectively adored Christmas. There are two pages on this site devoted to Christmases, first from 1994 through 2001, and then from 2002 through 2009.
Then there was Halloween, another fête with a build-up, this one in the form of costume hunting and creating, and an aftertaste in the form of treats. There were various approaches to costumes over the years: some of us (Marie-Hélène) were born to create costumes; others (me) rather uninspired in the domain. It didn’t matter: costumes were very popular all around. At times, they were planned for months in advance: in February 2006, Charles had already started looking for pieces for his 2006 costume.
Then there were New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving and Easter. Those fêtes just kept on coming!
Our first New Year’s Eves, 1994 and ’95, were both spent in England, visiting grandma. She put us up in a hotel near Marble Arch for our first New Yeras Eve together, and we toasted each other with good champagne in a rather luxurious room while Nick and Tom slept next door (Daphné and Alban were with their papa in Paris that year.) Memories are made of this!
Missus spent her last New Year’s Eve the next year in hospital, and we helped her organize and send her Christmas cards. That was the point when I realized that things were really on the downswing for her. Sending Christmas cards had been one of her most important rituals ever since I could remember, one that dad had shared with her. It was the key way that they, and then she, checked in each year with her wider circle of friends and family.
She had not felt well enough to organize and send the cards before we visited for the New Year, and had asked us to bring to her in her hospital bed from home in Marlow the various items that she needed to do so. We sat in her room and helped her write and address a good number of cards, perhaps not as many as she usually sent herself, and she was as happy as a clam to see so many taken care of. It was an oddly satisfying New Year’s Eve, even if it did only last until 9 or 10 in the evening, Marie-Hélène and I taking care of mum in her hospital bed.
For many of our years in Santa Cruz, a party at the Bernhardt – Benedicts was a warm and fuzzy welcome to the New Year. They were Happy Valley parents, with two boys about the ages of our older children, and a girl Charlie’s age. So we all had friends among the guests. It was typically a low key affair, focusing on conversation as much as partying (at least for the adult contingent!). Every year featured a potluck, and our contribution was typically champagne: as the “Europeans,” we felt that this was appropriate. There was a ping-pong table on one of the porches, different spaces for old and young (with video on demand for the latter), and in later years home-made fireworks to give the proceedings a little extra sparkle! Thank you, again, Jeff and Nanette.
Valentine’s Day too had its decorations, if a little sparser than the other fêtes. For example, Marie-Hélène frequently draped pink paper hearts on the walls around the breakfast nook, where they would sometimes stay for months reminding us all of love. Our presents for each other would perhaps be wrapped in pink, and pink flowers might adorn the breakfast table or the kitchen counter. White doves mingled with sparking pink hearts and strings of lights on the wall nearby: pleasing symbols adorning Cupid’s special day.
Thanksgiving had the annual feast, of course, lovingly prepared. Even though Marie-Hélène and I had first shared Thanksgiving in Paris, when it was our law firm’s principal annual celebration and jokingly referred to by Art Buchwald in the International Herald-Tribune, the ex-pat’s daily newspaper, as “le Jour de Merci Donnant,” it did take us a while to really participate in this most American of fêtes. This may have been something to do with our initial lack of enthusiasm for cooking a big spread involving coordinating several dishes: quite a challenge for us, in particular for me! But on a few occasions, the Hanlons invited us over for Thanksgiving: one of their more endearing traits is that both parents love to cook! Over time, they gave us the Thanksgiving bug too.
But Easter remained my favorite of these other fêtes, because Easter featured chocolate, my only remaining vice!
The link between chocolate and Easter was well developed in the England of my youth, and was a link which I felt deserved to be imported with us into the US. Every Easter, we hid dozens of eggs and bunnies of varying sizes and composition on the decks and in the garden in front of and around the side of the house. Most were chocolate, and all were up for grabs. They had been hidden early in the day, not the night before so that the raccoons too didn’t get an Easter treat. The children searched for them on Easter morning – not too late so that the sun couldn’t melt any of them – and rushed around amassing a stockpile of as many Easter treats as they could. Which of course they then ate, with varying degrees of alacrity. It was a spring stockpile (ha ha!) to complement the fall stockpile of Halloween.
Needless to say, it was not always possible to remember each hiding place, and there were years when I would stumble across hidden Easter treats months later. I duly ate them!
Other pages cover individual fêtes, each rather special: our wedding in 1997, my 50th birthday party in 2002, Antony and Courtney’s wedding in 2003, Halloween at the Hanlons in 2005, and Laura and Darin’s wedding in 2009. Not to forget Christmas after Christmas!
This page ends with a photo of another Halloween party: this one was at Bobbi and Barry’s in 2004 and gave the adults time together while the children romped in the pool.