THE first car is arriving. At least one guest then, thank goodness - only 49 more to show. Gilt-edged invitations, crates of champagne, rooms cleared ready to be trashed, a silk carpet to roll up before people start hammering cake into it, catering sufficient to feed a small nation - so much has gone into arranging the day. Yet all the host can do is throw a tantrum and say she would rather watch Dumbo. December 1 marks the launch of the events of the year: children's Christmas parties. Even a poor economy does not appear to have wiped the grin off sticky chins, according to organisers. This year's crucial trend? Justify all that extravagance as a reward for months of hard slogging through the recession. So first, location, location, location. Do not raise your blood pressure with trips to places like Ocean Park or Macau, unless numbers are small. Think instead about booking a function room in your apartment building or at a hotel, or about hiring your child's playschool for the day. If you are holding the party at home, put away most of the toys to avoid arguments. Get rid of any animals for the day. Make the place safe. Keep the party short and time it for just after lunch, to avoid children tucking into food straight away and launching into an ear-piercing sugar-high. Keep the food out of the way until then, but do not serve it so late it interferes with meals or bed time. The event revolves around food, of course. Party bags will be stuffed with it. Wipes, tablecloths, pictures, furniture and curtains will be smeared with it. Serve biscuits decorated with holly and berries, fairy cakes coated in silver stars, red and green jellies in Christmas moulds, pinwheel sandwiches of shredded lettuce and tomato, mini-pizzas with red and green peppers, gold- and silver-paper-coated chocolates. Fill transparent party bags with sweets and biscuits in seasonal colours and tied with coloured ribbon, or give them Christmas theme plastic mugs stuffed with goodies to take home. Then cook one big dish of pasta, something like easy-to-eat lasagne. Children will try a little if it looks attractive but may be too over-excited to eat anything at all. And do not expect them to sit at tables for long. Above all, keep the fancy food for the parents. 'Kids don't eat in volumes,' warns Marissa Jarkie, who concentrates on cake-making after years of catering for scores of children's parties. 'They might take a little on to their plate and just play with it, have little picks. After they reach six or seven years old, they get picky and won't touch too many fancy things. They like things they can identify with.' If money is tight this year, hold the party at a beach or a park, wrap gifts in the colourful cartoon pages from newspapers, cut out heavy card placemats and have the children decorate their own then cover with plastic. Cut down on food and just serve sandwiches cut in shapes and a cake, not from an expensive shop but from an individual (try magazines like Dollarsaver and newspapers), preferably someone who comes recommended. The quality will probably be better in any case. Teletubby cakes are just as popular through December as they are the rest of the year. Po and Dipsy getting big hugs provide the seasonal red and green. According to Mrs Jarkie (2504-3362), Winnie The Pooh sitting under a Christmas tree is also a big-seller. Or, for the older child, how about Mulan carrying presents? Theme parties go down well, although if the children are very young, they may frighten easily. Try re-creating Santa's home and invite little helpers along; design Candyland with huge colourful cutouts; go glittery with stars and moons; hire an ice-skating rink and have everyone dress in red-and-green winter clothes; make and paint huge, cheap cardboard igloos - children love confined spaces - and invite polar bears and penguins. Costumes can be difficult for working parents unless spending is not a problem. Try having a box of appropriate bits and pieces for everyone. It could be something as simple as masks, antlers or ears. Play games that do not eliminate everyone too quickly and make sure everyone gets a prize. Try hands-on activities such as a Christmas mural, or making party hats, finger puppets or even decorating a tree. Trish Hanley of Party Planners (2804-6211) suggests making tree decorations or stockings, or baking a gingerbread house or, for younger children, shaped biscuits with holes in, which can then be threaded on to coloured ribbon for decorations. 'Kids want something different from the usual magicians and so on,' she says. 'In Hong Kong, they go to so many parties some of them could do the acts themselves.' Puppet shows, face-painting, juggling, games and pantomimes are always popular, says Magic Circus' Robert Rogers (2982-1007), who often runs a workshop after shows. 'With the little ones, though, a very, very slow start is best, so they can get used to everything,' he said. 'They like puppets, simple games like Simon Says and especially balloon-twisting. You can't do that with older kids about. When they're five or six, they just get swords and pop them.' A wide age range at a party can cause problems. 'It's a common thing in Hong Kong that everyone brings their brothers and sisters. The small kids can get trampled on,' Ms Hanley warns. 'Parents can bring big toys, not things they could lose, and then find the little ones a corner to play in.' Mike Abbot of Abbot Leisure (2540-3982) suggests holding two parties if there is a big age difference. 'Some games work for both five- to seven-year-olds and eight- to 10-year-olds. Things like sack races, musical stars. After 10, you've to treat them like young adults. 'The only thing that can really go wrong is a bunch of disinterested kids who don't want to play. We try to start teams then, to get them going. And you've got to watch older boys. They tend to make a row during the magic show, thinking they know how it's done. Of course, they never do.' The way the afternoon ideally breaks down is the first half-hour for children arriving, the next hour for games or activities, and the last hour or so for eating, handing out party bags and saying goodbye, Mr Abbot says. Sing a few Christmas carols to signal an end to festivities; these are likely to be words everyone, whatever their nationality, will know. Have parents bring a present and put them all into a grab bag for children to dip into when the party is over. Gifts can make up for having to leave.