Anyone who has young children attending pre-school or participating in other similar programs will be acquainted with birthday rituals in group settings such as these. In Australia, they most likely take the form of the sharing of a home-made or bought ‘treat’ provided by the family of the birthday child, probably a familiar children’s favourite of some kind. If there are any stipulations at all, these are usually limited to requests that the treat should be free of nuts or other common allergens, in order to ensure that no-one is excluded from the celebration. Montessori and other pre-schools may go one step further and involve the child and their friends in the actual process of baking a simple birthday cake. Based on my own experience when my son spent one term in an Australian Montessori pre-school before moving to Japan and on conversations with friends whose children attended other schools, this was the range of meaning conjured up in my mind by the term ‘birthday party’ in the context of pre-school aged children in a formal group setting.
My son’s fourth birthday fell within a few months of starting his Japanese Montessori pre-school. By that time, I had learned that each month an ‘o-tanjokai’, usually rendered in English as ‘birthday party’, was held for the children whose birthdays fell during that month. I had heard about a special lunch prepared by the children themselves, with the menu devised by the mothers of the birthday children. I had also watched my son make birthday gifts and cards to be presented to his classmates. Clearly, the rituals here were somewhat more elaborate than those I was accustomed to.
Eventually, I read in the weekly newsletter that my son’s birthday celebration would be held the following month, along with one other child. Soon after, I was approached by the mother of his classmate suggesting that we discuss possible menus. It was then that I learned that the birthday lunch had to consist of three courses and that the menu had to be approved in advance by the teacher. Her criteria were fourfold: the meal should be nutritionally balanced; it should not include processed foods unless absolutely no alternative was available; it should involve plenty of peeling, chopping and other tasks requiring time and dexterity to accomplish; and it should not be anything that has been made at the school within the last three years – a notebook detailing the contents of previous birthday lunch menus was available for our consultation. A budget of around AU$20.00 was allocated to feed seventeen children and five adults. By now, I was struggling to equate the term ‘birthday party’ with the word ‘o-tanjokai’ in the pre-school setting.
Given that this was a rather more complex affair than the baking of a simple birthday cake, I naturally assumed that the whole day would be dedicated to the proceedings. However, as I was to discover, the preparation of the birthday lunch did not replace the regular activities of the children. Rather, it was simply an extra event incorporated into the day’s timetable.
The first year I attended, for my son’s fourth birthday, I donned my apron and stood as instructed in the appointed place in the tiny apartment that functioned as a classroom, watching as the children began carrying out their normal activities. Other than the absence of a few children and one assistant who had gone to the pre-school’s allotment a short walk away to pick some vegetables, there was absolutely no sign that today was different from any other day. Occasionally, I would glance at the clock, sure that any minute now the activities would be put away and the lunch preparations would begin. Ten o’clock came … ten-thirty … eleven o’clock. Still the children went about their daily Montessori ‘work’ tasks. I felt something akin to a sense of panic, afraid that the children would not be able to get the lunch ready for noon, concerned that the teacher may have lost track of the time, wondering whether I should offer a discreet reminder. Since there was no custom of bringing morning snacks, the children would have had nothing to eat since breakfast and I was sure that they must be ravenous by now. I myself had to fight hard to suppress the rumblings of my stomach from being heard in the confined space of the room. Finally at mid-day, when the children would normally be sitting down to eat their packed lunches, they were asked to gather round to hear the parents explain the day’s menu and go through the preparation and cooking directions. The children were also asked to identify the ingredients, one by one. Much to the chagrin of my son, I was asked to repeat each step of the process in English as well as teach the children the English names of the vegetables.
Every step of the food preparation process barring the use of the stove was assigned to the children. Seemingly unperturbed by hunger pangs, which were surely exacerbated by the sight and smells of the food in front of them, they set to work washing, peeling, chopping and mixing. Even the youngest children, three or four years old, were entrusted with the task of chopping vegetables – including tear-inducing onions – with kitchen knives on their own miniature boards. So captivated was I by the buzz of organized activity, so enthralled by the obvious enjoyment with which they went about their allotted jobs, so impressed by their ability to sustain focus and concentration, that my own hunger pangs were quickly forgotten.
The birthday lunch was eventually dished up at around 1:30 pm, an hour before the children were due to go home. While I do not recall the details of that particular year’s menu, my son’s fifth birthday lunch the following year consisted of curried rice vermicelli, Chinese vegetable soup, and hyokako (an unusual Japanese sweet potato dessert originating in the southern island of Kyushu) with fruit and ice-cream. The ingredients for this feast included twelve different types of vegetables and fruits, as well as pork, eggs, rice vermicelli and a variety of seasonings.
After the lunch had been consumed with relish by all (with some coming back for seconds!), the children sat patiently as they took it in turn to present their hand-made gifts and cards. Then came the universal Montessori ritual of the birthday children walking slowly along an elliptical line carrying a globe around a candle that represents the sun, four times for my son to symbolize four years of his life. Finally, an arrangement of candles was blown out, a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung and a new badge was pinned on to the children’s shirts, proclaiming their promotion through the ranks to the next age group.
Having celebrated three of my son’s birthdays in this way, ‘o-tanjokai’ in the pre-school context is now etched in my consciousness as a concept that the term ‘birthday party’ cannot begin to encompass. The occasion provided yet another catalyst to challenge my culturally entrenched views of the needs and capabilities of young children, forcing me to push beyond the narrow boundaries of my comfort zone and offering precious new insights into a culture that I had believed I knew so well already.