Spectrum of Birthdays: HMNS Celebrates in Any Tradition!

by Rochelle Beckford and Karen Whitley

Birthdays are an event that is celebrated in nearly every culture around the world. Every culture has its own traditions. Some traditions are based on the standing of the family in the community, the gender of the child, the birth order, or religion. Here at the HMNS we have witnessed a variety of cultural birthday celebrations from all over the world. We have celebrated parties from over 35 different countries and even more cultures! Here are just a few:



Arghya Banik, Flickr Creative Commons.

Singing Happy Birthday is a relatively new tradition in our world. While birthdays have been celebrated for well over a millennia (in fact, it was originally considered a pagan tradition!), the singing of happy birthday is less than a hundred years old. While the original song was originally written in English anonymously in 1911 and set to the tune of an American song, Good Morning to All, written for a Kindergarten class in 1893, the song has become immensely popular and has transcended borders. Some countries have translated the words into their own language while others have created their own version. Here at HMNS, we have had a lot of families sing the birthday song in English and then sing it again in the families’ native tongue. Happy Birthday has been sung in Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, Hebrew, Greek, French, Hindi, Polish, German and more! We have even sung it in ASL, or American Sign Language.

Did you know that the Happy Birthday song has been a hotbed for debate regarding its copyright? In 1935 the original publisher of Good Morning to All songbook was granted the copyright to the song (later bought out by Warner) and has held the copyright for 80 years! It wasn’t until last year during a lawsuit regarding its unlawful use in a documentary film that a federal judge declared the song public domain. So go ahead and sing away!

Cutting the Cake


Melissa Wang, Flickr Creative Commons.

Unlike the birthday song that originated in American, the tradition of a birthday cake dates to the eastern hemisphere to early Roman times. Traditionally, the flat cakes sweetened with honey were only baked for the most important people, but by the mid-1880s a large population of the eastern hemisphere had adapted it for everyone. Of course birthday cakes have changed dramatically throughout the centuries, to where now it is hard to distinguish them from a wedding cake. In many cultures, including American, the cutting of the cake symbolizes good luck. The birthday person makes the first slice into a new birthday cake to physically signify the beginning of a new birth year.

At HMNS, we have also seen more traditions involving the cutting of the birthday cake. Many Indian families will either have the birthday child a piece, or even a few pieces, of cake and the family takes turn coming up and feeding the cake to him or her. Sometimes this is extended to only the child’s parents and grandparents, but occasionally we have seen extended family feed the birthday child as well. We have seen South American parties touch the birthday child’s shoulder and head following the singing and right before the cutting, or even pulling on the ear lobe of the birthday child for each year of their life.



Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons.

Now a days it is a very common practice to gift money or a gift card at a birthday party. Quite simply, for many people it is easier than dealing with the stress of picking out a present that the birthday recipient will like. No one wants to buy the dud present. However, there are cultural traditions regarding the gift or money that you may not even be aware of! Everyone has probably seen a person with money pinned to their shirt. If you are like me, you probably thought this was a pretty modern tradition that sprang out of nowhere. In fact, this is a tradition heavily rooted in the Cajun culture in New Orleans. From there, many link it back to West Africa and Nigeria. Like many traditions, this one has been adopted and can be seen being practiced by many people, not just a person of African descent.

Another tradition that is found in multiple cultures is the act of throwing money in the air as participants dance and sing. This is more oft than not seen at a wedding, however we have seen this adapted to birthday parties as well. The roots for this are widespread, with countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and North America all having their own take. In China, money is not thrown around but wrapped in red paper, the red symbolizing energy, happiness, and luck.



necopunch, Flickr Creative Commons.

Food can be a very important part of many families’ celebrations. At HMNS, we allow families to bring in their own food or have it delivered for birthday parties, so we are treated to a wide variety of cuisine from around the world. Some traditions we have seen are that families from the Philippines bring pancit, long noodles that signify long life. Indian families dine on dudh pakh, curry, and chutney. Korean families bring rice pudding for the entire party. Brazilian families create an elaborate dessert table for their guests to enjoy. The taste and the smells of the different foods add to the excitement of the day.

No matter what traditions that your family has for birthdays, we welcome them at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and look forward to celebrating your special day with you!

Editor’s note: Rochelle is the Birthday Party Coordinator and Karen is the Birthday Party Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Amazing Cakes: Top picks of Party Smarty 2015

by Karen Whitley

Every year we see hundreds of birthday cakes, and we are blown away (candle pun intended) by some of the creations parents bring in! From the cakes that defy gravity to the ones we have to use careful geometry to cut, we are always excited to see what a party brings in. Here’s a look at some of our favorite cakes so far.

Here’s a gorgeous cake to celebrate our butterfly theme. The bees and ladybugs add the perfect touch!

BFC cake

If you have a boy (or girl) more interested in bugs than botany, check out this cake crawling with garden pals.

Insect Cake

For all of you mad scientists out there, here’s a chemistry cake for you.

Chemistry cake

In celebration of our brand new Wildlife theme. You can’t see it, but there are alligators lurking along the edges of this Texas cake!

Texas Cake 2

This stellar Jupiter cake is out of this world!

Jupiter 2

While it’s not one of our themes, Elsa and Anna from Frozen made numerous appearances this year.


A fabulous Ancient Egypt cake, complete with flaming torches! Walking like a hieroglyph yet?

Egypt cake

And to round off our Amazing Cakes, here’s a look at some of our favorite dinosaur delicacies!

Dino cake with painted dinos

Jurassic World CakeDino Cake by Gina

Jurassic World Fragile Cakedinosaur cake

And finally our personal favorite here at Party Smarty.

Logo Cake

Is it just me, or is there a resemblance?

smarty logo

If you need help finding cakes as awesome as these for your HMNS birthday party, give us a call! We keep a list of the best places to find cool creations.

Editor’s Note: Karen is the Birthday Party Manager for HMNS Marketing.

Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.


Inventory before HMNS hits…


…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

cart 2

We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

cart 3 small

When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

cart 5

Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

loading 2

Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

loading 3

…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

unloading 1

Reverse Tetris begins…

unloading 2

…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

xtra cart 1

HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).

Get wet, go wild, or blast off with new Party Smarty birthday themes at HMNS

by Karen Whitley

Yikes! Is it May already? Time has flown by and now your child is about to turn another year older. Between work, school, dinner, errands, and that never-ending laundry, who has time to plan a party? Lucky for you, that’s what we’re here for! Not for the laundry (you’re on your own with that), but the Houston Museum of Natural Science is the place to call for giving your child a birthday experience he or she will never forget. We have hosted over 3,000 birthdays here at the museum, so we know a thing or two when it comes to parties. This year we are excited to announce that we are offering three new Party Smarty themes at our Hermann Park location: Shark!, wildlife, and Mars expedition!

Shark- Touch Tank 2 (2)

Sharks have always fascinated us land-dwellers, and they continue to hold millions of people across the nation in thrall each year in July. If you have your own shark-lover at home, now’s your chance to become the coolest parent around by throwing your kid aShark- Great White2 (2) birthday party with real sharks! Not only will they get to learn about great white sharks,
see the jaw of a megalodon, and actually get inside a shark cage, but they will also get the chance to touch live sharks in our Shark! touch tank experience. As an added bonus, each kid will get a one-of-a-kind button declaring that they touched a shark. Shark! will be leaving our museum in September, so make sure to grab this chance before it swims away!

Wildlife 7 (Swan Lake) 2Did you know that a ringtail cat is not a cat? Or that a bald eagle has 7,000 feathers? With our Texas wildlife theme, your birthday group will get the chance to hop along with robins and howl with coyotes as you explore the diverse habitats and wildlife that our great state Wildlife 8 (Ocelot) 2has to offer. From soaring falcons to roaming American buffalo, there are more than 250 types of animals in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife! Will you be able to find the flying squirrel? Now you and your guests can experience the American wild from dawn to dusk as you listen to the calls and sounds of our animals with the rising and setting of the sun.

Looking for something special for your pre-teen or teenager? Our Expedition Center theme is a great way to get them away from their video games and into a thrilling simulated flight to Mars! This is no pleasure cruise: your teen and friends will have to work together to Expeditionsuccessfully complete their mission to land on Mars. From piloting and navigating to building probes, experiments, and so much more, everyone will have a blast on this voyage into uncharted territory.

For more information about all of our basic and deluxe Party Smarty themes and packages, visit us here.