Most everybody loves a surprise. I say "most" because it is true that there are some people out there who hate surprises. So before you consider throwing a surprise party, you have to ask yourself if the person you want to surprise will actually enjoy this. The fact that you have gone to a lot of trouble in your attempt to have a special event may sometimes be overlooked if the guest of honor is shy, doesn't like attention, or stresses with change or the unknown. When my husband hit 40 I thought it would be fun to surprise him with a big party but after 15 years of marriage I knew he wouldn't enjoy it as much as I would and decided instead to celebrate by going out to dinner with friends with no surprises attached. When I told him later of my original intentions he thanked me for not having the surprise party.
After you've honestly evaluated the guest of honor and decided that they would enjoy or at least appreciate a surprise party, you are ready to start planning and plotting. As the host you must be prepared to dream up a clever scheme to fool the guest of honor and succeed in surprising them. This requires creativity and usually a bit of deception. To help you out, here are some tips to keep the surprise a surprise.
- Plan ahead. It is hard to throw a surprise party at the last minute. It is possible, but there are so many things to consider that giving yourself enough time to insure everything will work out will be less stressful and the chances of it working out will increase.
- Pretend to have another event or party at the same time. For my parents 50th wedding anniversary we pretended to have a family reunion. This made it possible for me to talk about the party with my parents. It explained why family members from out of town, including myself, were coming in to town and even gave me an excuse to get help with the guest list of extended family members. For my daughter's surprise 16th birthday, I staged a fake party at another friend's house in town that she and all her friends were invited to. This made it easy for her to want to go and helped her be in the party mood when she arrived at the real party.
- Arrange for the party to be before or after the actual event. My daughter's surprise 16th birthday was actually on her half birthday. Before my daughter turned 16 she insisted that she "didn't want a party" and I naively believed her. It wasn't until a few months after she turned 16 that she confessed that she was hoping I would throw her a surprise party but obviously she couldn't ask for one. Apparently she had hinted for several years that she would like a surprise party for her 16th birthday but I didn't get the hint. I felt horrible and quickly tried to figure out how I could fix it. I calculated that she would be exactly 16 1/2 at the end of spring break and devised a plan to surprise her then.
- Think carefully about the location of the party. Often when throwing a surprise party it is best to not have it at the guest of honor's house because it is hard to hide decorations, food and other party indicators. If you limit your decorations and can keep the guest of honor occupied away from home for a few hours, it is possible to have the party at the guest of honor's home. I threw a surprise party at our house for my son's birthday and his friend's just kept him out all day. The one advantage of having the party at the guest of honor's house is that you know they will show up, eventually. Having the party at a location other than the guest of honor's house requires a reason to go to the other location. For my daughter's surprise party where she thought we were going to a party at a friends, I had to have an excuse for stopping on the way at my sister-in-law's house (the actual location of the surprise party) and a reason for all of us to get out of the car (I pretended to need everyone to take in chairs for my sister-in-law).
- Tell children last minute. If children are involved with the surprise, you might want to tell them just before the surprise happens, so they don't give it away. It can be really hard for kids to keep such a big, exciting secret and they can easily slip up in conversation with the guest of honor. They can also ask questions that give away the surprise if things are not normal.
- Make sure no clues are left lying around. For my daughter's surprise party I took all of my food and decorations over to my sister-in-laws house right after purchasing them so there was no possibility my daughter could accidentally see anything.
- Consider the dress code. Telling my parents that their surprise 50th wedding anniversary party was a reunion was perfect for a lot of things but I hadn't anticipated my father's choice of dress for the occasion. My dad arrived at the party wearing the tee-shirt with my great grandfather on it that my brother had made for a family reunion years earlier. My sister had tried to encourage my dad to change before they left for the party but he insisted that he had to wear his reunion shirt to the "reunion." In the end it wasn't tragic that my dad had on his silly tee-shirt because the party wasn't supposed to be formal and we weren't in a fancy restaurant so he wasn't entirely embarrassed with his outfit. My sister had managed to convince him to bring another shirt, just in case, that he never did get a chance to change into. To be honest, I was thrilled with his choice of dress because it showed he really had bought in to the whole reunion charade, hook, line and sinker.
- Handle RSVP's carefully. When I threw my daughter's surprise 16 1/2 birthday party I had her friend put out a Facebook invite to everyone for the fake party, the one at his house, but then I personally messaged everyone who was invited as well as sent them a physical invitation through the postal service that explained the real party and the surprise. I also reminded everyone in private messages that the party was not actually the Facebook event but a surprise at a different location. Facebook invitations or events are dangerous ways to send surprise invitations because even if you have it be a selective invitation, there seem to be ways that your "friends" can see that you were invited or that you commented or liked something to do with the party depending on the restrictions you have on your Facebook. Kids often have loose privacy policies about their Facebook accounts and the world sees things that were intended to be private. As far as I know, the only safe way distribute information on Facebook is through individual private messages. You also have to be careful that people don't leave RSVP messages on family answering machines or email addresses.
- Have your guests arrive early. If your guests are showing up at the same time as the guest of honor, obviously the guest of honor will know that something is not quite right. Emphasize the need for punctuality but allow time for guests to be late and still not ruin the surprise.
- Encourage car pooling. Having a ton of cars parked in front of the party house is a dead giveaway that something is up--unless of course you have tricked the guest of honor by pretending to be taking them to a fictitious event where it would make sense that there are lots of cars.
- Hide visible decorations. Unless you want the surprise to be before the guest of honor enters the event, you have to keep all decorations hidden from the outside view. When I threw the surprise party for my daughter, I was able to have balloons outside because part of the deception was that my sister-in-law was having a party at her house that we had to take chairs to.
- Act natural around the guest of honor before the event. In order to surprise someone they can not suspect that anything out of the ordinary is going on. You have to proceed with life as if nothing is special about the day. For my parent's 50th anniversary surprise we were pretending this was a reunion and historically our reunions have been "bring your own dinner" affairs but because this wasn't really a reunion my siblings and I were bringing the meal for everyone invited. My parents, however, were expecting a reunion so my sister just went along with my parents when they stopped on the way to the party to pick up fried chicken.
- Have someone bring the guest of honor to the event. You can't always count on the guest of honor being on time or even coming at all if you don't arrange to have someone else bring them to the event. My sister lives as far away from my parents as I do and her husband and 3 of her 4 kids were not able to come to my parent's surprise anniversary party which was disappointing but ended up being a blessing because it meant that she and her baby came to the party with my parents. Had my sister not been with my parents, they would have shown up to the party an hour early! My sister was able to stall them at a grocery store when she realized that they were going to be early and thus the surprise was not spoiled.
- Synchronize watches. Make sure that the person bringing the guest of honor is on the same time as the party host.
Despite your greatest efforts, surprises can be spoiled by innocent remarks and situations. When my oldest son was born, friends at my church threw a huge surprise baby shower. I was totally oblivious until my mom, who was visiting, said something about needing another gift. I stupidly asked why and she fumbled. I knew something was up but I was so touched that everyone would go to the bother for me that I pretended to not figure it out and acted as surprised as I could. I was genuinely surprised at the amount of people who came and cared. My daughter's surprise 16 1/2 birthday managed to be a surprise for months, right up until the about a half an hour before we left for the party. She was curling her sister's hair when my older daughter's friend (who lives in another country) called. My youngest daughter, the soon to be guest of honor, told her to put the phone on speaker so that they could continue curling the hair. Nobody told the friend that she was on speaker so when she asked what my oldest daughter was doing and she said that she was getting ready for a party her friend asked, "Is that the surprise party for your sister?" Ack! The surprise wasn't a total loss, apparently my youngest daughter didn't realize that the surprise party and the party they were going to were the same thing. So the moral of all of this is that if your surprise is discovered prematurely, don't panic. Relax and roll with it! Fretting about it will just make the guest of honor feel bad that they missed out on something, and chances are there are things about the event that will still sufficiently surprise them. After all, even though it is not the ideal moment or the intended moment, at some point, it is still a SURPRISE!
What have you done to keep the surprise in your surprise parties?
What have you done to keep the surprise in your surprise parties?