What Bao Bao has in common with other 1-year-olds in D.C.

Bao Bao, Washington D.C.'s beloved baby panda, celebrates her first birthday with a Zhuazhou (dra-JO) ceremony, a Chinese tradition for a 1-year-old child. (Ben Dorger/The Washington Post)

Is spoiled the right word for it? No, not for our Bao Bao.

“Year-round VIP treatment,” says Nicole MacCorkle, the young panda’s keeper. “But I don’t consider it spoiling.”

The panda, who has had a camera pointed at nearly every moment of her life, turns 1 on Saturday. The National Zoo, whether it admits to spoiling or not, is going all out.

More than 20 news cameras have RSVP’d to be there when Bao Bao wakes up. There will be a traditional Chinese celebration, two parties, favors for guests from corporate sponsors, lectures on pandas and a tiered cake made of all of Bao Bao’s favorite foods: pears, apples, carrots and sweet potatoes. All attendees can, of course, make a stop at the zoo’s gift shop, where they can buy Bao Bao backpacks, Bao Bao shot glasses, Bao Bao neck pillows and dozens of other kitschy Bao Bao items to contribute to Bao Bao mania.

Extravagant? Maybe. Unusual? Not in Washington.

The National Zoo’s giant panda cub is celebrating her first birthday. Here's a look at some of the most memorable moments since her birth on Aug. 23, 2013. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The zoo is simply taking part in what seems to be a D.C. tradition: the over-the-top first birthday party.

In a city packed with young professionals, it is common, if not expected, for couples to wait until their 30s to have children. By the time their child’s first birthday arrives, they’re likely to feel it’s an accomplishment worth celebrating in a big way, local party planners say.

“Older parents are in a financial position to give their kids the parties they always dreamed of when they were children,” says Monique Williams, owner of event planning company Enchanted Expectations.

That makes planning children’s parties, especially first birthday parties, big business in and around the District. Parents typically pay between $400 and $800 for an established planner, who will organize everything from decoration themes (“Frozen” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” are especially popular this year) to cake (sometimes one to be eaten, one for the photos) to goodie bags (one parent sent every child home with a goldfish).

“Parties for 1-year-olds are typically more extravagant, because babies aren’t old enough to play games, so you have to bring the entertainment in, like clowns or balloon artists,” says Samantha Antes, owner of Confetti Event Planning. She has planned parties for 1-year-olds that had more than 50 children attend and parties that cost more than $4,500.

While some parents request no gifts, or ask attendees to bring donations for charities such as the D.C. Diaper Bank, others have taken to registering for gifts, as if the celebration were a wedding.

Of course, just as Bao Bao’s party isn’t really for the young panda herself — and is more geared toward getting people to the zoo — party planners know the baby blowouts are really for the people who will actually remember the party: the adults.

Bao Bao is just one of the 155 critters born at the zoo in the past year. Here is a look at every animal born since August 23, 2013, at the zoo and the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.

And, not to be overlooked, their Facebook feeds. Nearly every first birthday party includes time for the baby Pinterest phenomenon called “the smash cake,” in which the birthday child is presented with a personalized cake that inevitably ends up smeared all over his or her face. It’s just about impossible for this scene not to be adorable, but parents often spruce up the photo op with custom backdrops, outfits and balloons.

While pictures of this activity are guaranteed to make it onto grandma’s refrigerator and bring in the likes on social media, having photographic evidence of epic first birthday parties does have a down side — setting an expectation, both for first birthdays of future children and for the rest of the first child’s birthdays.

It can be a slippery slope, planners say, to the parents constantly trying to outdo themselves. Such precedents turn into horror stories of the party-planning trade. Specifically: one mom who demanded that Misty Nelson of Frosted Events find ponies to bring to her 4-year-old’s party. She then wanted the ponies’ tails and manes to be dyed purple, so that when sparkly horns were attached to their heads, the ponies would become unicorns on which her daughter’s friends could ride.

“I called around,” Nelson says. “But nobody wanted to do that to the ponies.”

Luckily, those unicorn delusions are the exception, not the rule.

“The ones who are more . . . I don’t want to say sane, I shouldn’t say that . . . but most parents just want to celebrate the big moments,” Nelson said.

Many do so without hiring a planner. Kelly Juhl, of Fairfax, Va., used Pinterest and Etsy to plan her daughter Marra’s first birthday party Aug. 2. After seeing photos of babies eating their smash cakes on custom highchairs, she scoured Craigslist for an antique chair, painted it and spent two days creating a tutu to adorn it. It wasn’t that she felt pressured to take part in the first birthday party tradition, the 36-year-old lawyer said. It was just a fun thing to do after a day in court.

“This time more than a year ago, it would have sent me into peals of laughter to think I would be making a highchair tutu,” Juhl said.

But there’s something about a first birthday — or, for Bao Bao, a first birthday week — that seems worth going all out for. And since Juhl can’t bring herself to throw the chair away, she has a head start on the celebrations to come.

“Whether or not [my daughter] wants to participate, well. . . . I don’t think she will appreciate being stuffed into that extravagant highchair when she’s 30,” Juhl said. “But I figure, it’s one day a year to be fun and extravagant and whimsical. And if I’m doing my job the other 364 days, then it will all come out all right.”

Jessica Contrera is a staff writer at the Washington Post.
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