Of Birthday Cakes, Christmas Day and the Longest Game of All

Ever since my daughters were born, I’ve had the same drama twice a year. Completely overestimating my talent and underestimating the time it takes to bake and ice a cake, I get myself into a complete state just so I can produce a luridly coloured blob of half-baked batter, vaguely shaped like a pony/mermaid/flower/whatever the birthday girl’s request is. And every time I find myself standing in the kitchen at midnight, staring at the icing slowly landsliding towards the countertop, taking with it candles, Happy Birthday lettering, and chocolate-chip pony eyeballs … every time, I ask myself why I’m doing this again. And every time, the answer is the same: to make sure that the children keep coming home. For birthdays, for Easter and, especially, for Christmas.

For a long time after I left home, Christmas was just … nice. A nice day. A day off from working or studying. A day to sleep in a bit, then head over to the parental half-acre to swap gifts and eat too much potato salad. Sometime after supper I’d say goodbye and go back to my flat, and that was Christmas, over for another year. No big deal. There were some Christmases when I went back home more out of a sense of duty than out of any real connection to the day, and quite a few when I didn’t make it home at all. Easter was similarly low-key and, as for Halloween, it wasn’t really a thing in pre-millennium South Africa, can you believe. So many chocolate-opportunities, utterly lost.

Anyway, my point is, back in those days, there was only one celebration that really counted – only one that my friends and I talked about for weeks before, and remembered for weeks afterwards, and that was New Year. We had such a choice of house and street parties, clubs, bars and restaurants, all thumping with music and awash in glitter and champagne-substitute, that we spent more than one New Year midnight moment sitting in the car, squabbling about where to go next. New Year was fantastic, and everything else paled in comparison.

Fast forward mumblemumbletwentysomething years to now, and New Year looks a bit different. At best, it’s spent quietly with friends, over a nice meal. We might crank the music up a bit if we’re feeling frisky, but we’ll probably crank it down again almost immediately, so we can put our feet up and chat. And that’s a good New Year. There have been others when my husband and I, baby-bound and exhausted, have gone nowhere, done nothing, fallen asleep on the couch before twelve, with the champagne unopened on the table in front of us.

These child-filled days, New Year is the non-event celebration, and everything else has become an extravaganza involving cake, party outfits and a hundred holiday-themed ways to develop your child’s fine motor coordination. There are eggs to be painted and flung down hillsides, pumpkins to be eviscerated and halls to be decked; buns, biscuits and gingerbread houses to be made; festivals and markets to go to.

I’m just as bad at egg-painting as I am at cake-decorating, and my Halloween make-up skills are dreadful, but dammit, I’ll do it. I’ll show up to that party, palette knife in hand. Because parenting is a long game, and the world is wide, and one day my daughters will wake up on the other side of it, in their own homes, tired from studying or working, and just not as into the whole birthday/Easter/Christmas thing as they used to be. The effort it’ll take to get back to the parental eighth-acre will be huge (and besides, it’ll be New Year they’re really looking forward to). So I’m laying a trail now – of traditions and rituals, gingerbread crumbs, wood fires and tinsel, and a hundred happy moments standing around laughing at my birthday cakes – that will lead them back home, to me, to celebrate.

By Robyn Goss

Robyn is a part-time writer and full-time slave to her two young daughters. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, she now lives in a little cow-rich village in Switzerland.

She spends her free time making To Do lists of things she’ll probably never get around to doing (have the car cleaned; vacuum under the bed; run a half-marathon) and putting the finishing touches to her third novel. To read more of Robyn’s writing, click here and here.

Illustration by BVisual.

Beth works as special educational needs teacher. She graduated from university after studying visual communication, specialising in illustration, and then went on to do post graduate studies in education. Beth’s been working as a freelance creative alongside her teaching, and has undertaken projects involving portraits and editorial illustrations under her artist’s name BVisual.

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