If there’s a secret to throwing the perfect party, we haven’t found it yet. One host can put on the dog, spending hundreds, or thousands, on wholesale party supplies and huge amounts of food and beverages at one of the bulk discounts, and then match all that shopping work with the work of creating an elaborate theme. The result: the kind of soul-killing boredom that has guests claiming they’ve received urgent text messages from long dead relatives or feigning seizures just to liven things up. A skilled party-thrower, however, can create a night of miraculous wonder, or at least genuine fun, with not much more than a six-pack and a package of Lipton’s Onion Soup mix, though it would have to be a pretty small party. The reason is that parties reflect all of life, and life is a mystery. As with everything else in life, preparation is key — but that’s not the whole story.
The sheer number and diversity of social functions we human beings throw for each other is astonishing. Leaving out the thousands of cultural subgroups that have their own types of get togethers, from Bridge and Mahjong players to political groups to fans of endangered or long dead cult TV shows, parties come in all shapes and sizes and literally take us from the cradle to the grave.
We start with baby showers, christenings and the like, move on to assorted celebrations of teen coming of age: bar and bat mitzvahs, confirmations, quinceañeras and “sweet 16s.” Those are quickly followed by less formal shindigs like college keggers of various types and, for some of us, hipster after-parties. After a while, we get to those inevitable wedding and engagement parties, as we slowly move into humdrum middle-age with smaller cocktail and dinner parties, “networking” and singles mixers, casino nights, TV-based get togethers including Super Bowl parties and Oscar night soirees, and a recent innovation, pink-slip parties. And then as we get older, retirement parties (gold watch optional), retirement community get-togethers, and, that final celebratory close out, the ultimate after-party — the post-funeral wake.
And that’s kind of the point. In the largest sense parties are, as the cliché says a “celebration of life,” but in the most literal sense. They are one of the few obvious markers of major life events left in our industrialized society. And we’re not just talking about the major and obvious rites of passage. There is another more common rite loved by children, endured by parents, and dreaded by all guests-of-honor over thirty. And it comes with cake.
We speak, of course, of birthday parties. No one can calculate how much gas is consumed by parents dutifully ferrying their children to literally scores of parties each year (often one for each member of their children’s classes), how many bulk discount wholesale party supplies – party hats, streamers, cardboard signs, noisemakers (both the mechanical and low-grade explosives types), pizza and sugary beverages are used and consumed at children’s parties alone. As we age, the parties may tend to grow less elaborate and usually less crowded, but our loved ones — and often coworkers who can barely stand us the rest of the time — seem committed to celebrating the days, if only as an excuse for a bit of birthday cake. Everyone likes birthday cake.
The secret to throwing a great party may remain an eternal mystery, but that’s okay. We need our parties: to break up the year, the mark the changes in life, to celebrate the continuity of life, to enjoy an occasional cocktail and a bit of unhealthy food. Not all of us can be the life of the party, but not many of us would like life without parties.