Circus Birthday Party (Judah’s first birthday)

(Yes, I’m talking about his first birthday… the one nearly a year ago. *ahem*)

Circus birthday party ideas on a budget, including circus tent smash cake how-to (for a first birthday), games, decorating ideas, and free printables.

Y’all know how much I love a good party. And although I think it’s wasteful to spend vast amounts of money on parties (especially kids birthday parties), I think there are ways to do it so that you can party in style, decorate to your heart’s content (if you’re like me and that turns you on), and do it all without breaking the bank. In total I spent about $80 on this party, and that includes all the food, cake, decorations, favors, balloons, game prizes, etc.

I’m all about DIY when it comes to parties. My tools? Mostly things that you can find at home like your computer, printer, spray paint, glue gun, paper, string, etc. The big exception is that I love helium balloons. If they weren’t so expensive I would have helium balloons at every kids party – lots and lots of them. I figure that since a kid only turns one once, I can splurge on a few helium balloons. (For this party I think I got about 15 or 20.)

Circus birthday party ideas on a budget, including circus tent smash cake how-to (for a first birthday), games, decorating ideas, and free printables.

Since I’m now beginning to think about Judah’s second birthday coming up in a few months, I thought maybe it was time I shared photos from his first birthday party. It was a super fun party, but so long ago that thank God I have photos to help me remember. <insert sarcastic snickering here>

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party - the Bookers in the photo booth

I have to say before I go on that I always run out of time to take pictures of everything in the way I’d like to before the party. And of course once it starts I need (want!) to be enjoying the party so I try to let it all go. In saying that, I didn’t get any great photos of the party table as a whole. Boo! But more importantly, we all had a wonderful time and our little dude was well and truly honored.

Circus party invitations

Circus Party birthday invitation

I made these invitations in Pages, and–sorry–I don’t still have the original document to share. I do, however, have the stickers that I scanned in to embellish the invites. (Download them here.)

Circus party decorating

My best overall party decorating advice is to choose the colors that you’d like, and then look around the house to see what you already have. I used bright colors (most anything was fair game, but I primarily used red, yellow, orange, and blue) and used stuffed animals (tiger, lion, monkeys, etc.) and other things I found around the house (like a red wagon, wooden clown ring stacker, etc.) to help bring in the fun circus feel.

I also used this coat rack that I thrifted ($2.50) to hang photos of Judah’s first year.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – photos of first year as decorations.

I bought some sweet little circus party stickers ($1.99) at Target, but then used those to base everything else on. Like the invitations (above) and this circus tent I drew onto cardboard by eyeballing the sticker packaging:

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party table decorations

I made several simple signs that I posted around the yard with “circusy” messages like: The Booker’s Big Top, Come One, Come all, Step Right Up, Join the Circus, Face Painting, Balloon Animals, etc. (Download free printable circus party signs here. You’re welcome.)

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – Download free printable circus party signs.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party photo booth backdrop.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – wagon to collect cards.

Circus party games

Ring toss – My husband painted a board that was a left-over from our garage, added pegs, and we used cardboard rings that I spray-painted black. I noticed the rings were being thrown out in Kmart (they had been used to prevent stacked bowls from scratching) and so—yes—I asked an employee if I could salvage their garbage. (No shame here, folks, no shame. I’m always looking for things to reuse, recycle, or multi-purpose.)

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party ring toss

Bean bag toss — I googled images of clowns and found an adorable vintage clown image that I looked at to draw my own large clown on a piece of cardboard. (I’m terrible at drawing from my imagination, but can usually pull it off if I’m looking at something as a guide.) I modified it a bit and made the mouth much larger (for cut-out) and then painted it and strapped it to a ladder for kids to throw bean bags through.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party - vintage clown bean bag toss party game.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party - vintage clown bean bag toss party game. (Strap the clown image to a ladder.)

It also got used as a cute photo prop… unintended bonus.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party - vintage clown bean bag toss party game or photo booth prop.

Face painting and balloon animals – Guess what? I had stuff all ready for these, and had even asked people in advance to head them up. Then they arrived and I promptly forgot.

Prizes – I filled a basket with dollar store trinkets and stickers and put a 6-year-old in charge of handing them out to any of the kids who tried the games (or ones who didn’t). It was a fun way to engage the bigger kids with the littler kids.

Circus party photo booth

For the photo booth I used our bed spread as a backdrop. Maybe not the most circus-inspired print, but it was bright and bold so I thought it would work.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-2

The bunting is card stock triangles with holes punched in the two top corners. (After doing a few parties I now have a folder of card stock triangles in all sorts of colors. I didn’t even have to cut these out for the party – just went and chose the colors I wanted and strung them together. Wallah. I save them and reuse them all the time.)

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-7

The only props I bought for the photo booth were the top hat, the clown nose, and the clown wig. (I consider these investments as we still play with them and will use them for parties, costumes, etc. in the future too.) And I made the lions mane out of colored card stock, a paper plate, and zig zag scissors.

The kids loved it:

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-14

And so did the big kids:

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-3

Everything else we already had in our dress-up box – glasses, princess crown, party hats, cowboy hats, flowered leis, wigs, eye patch, etc. Props don’t have to be circus-specific. As long as they’re fun or silly, it’s all fair game.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party photo booth

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party photo booth fun

Circus party favors

Party favors were animal crackers and cracker jacks – nice and easy and cute. The message says “Thanks for celebrating Judah’s life with us.” (Please don’t email me asking for the template for the labels. I’m sorry but I accidentally deleted them and will not be re-making them… mmmkay? I’m sure you understand.)

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party party favors  Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – party favors.

Circus party food

As for party food, I’m all about simple. I’m not your kitchen guru and will never pretend to be. I normally make my cupcakes from a box (gasp!) and serve a few easy prep snacks. For this party I did chopped veggies served in small cups with a few spoonfulls of dip at the bottom (thank you pinterest), cookies, cheese and crackers, and by-far the crowd favorite: apple bites on toothpicks dipped in carmel (I wish I had a photo of these – cute and super delish!).

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party cupcakes

We also had pink lemonade and sweet sun tea (and water).

I set everything on a bright red table cloth that I’ve now had for years (my smartest party purchase ever – think Christmas, Valentines Day, 4th of July, birthdays, Australia Day – it’s all fair game and can all go on red).

Circus party (smash) cake

Now, like I said I’m not amazing in the kitchen, but I was proud of this little smash cake I made for Judah.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – circus tent smash cake.

It was simply a red velvet cake (yup, from a box) with white frosting. I used two small round pans that I got for Levi’s 1st birthday (a sock monkey party) and stacked the layers on top of each other. I made sure the bottom layer was flat (cut off the little mound) and over-filled the second layer a bit so that it would rise in a mound and make the “roof” of the tent.

Circus Party for Judah's First Birthday – circus tent smash cake.

I then placed it on a yellow plastic plate, cut some thick red licorice strips to transform it into a circus tent, added some blue gummy candies around the bottom (gross, but looked cute), and a little homemade flag on the top. The cake took me less than ten minutes to decorate (including making the little banner flag) and looked great.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-22   Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-23

Circus party smash cake backdrop

I really hoped for great photos of the smash cake (the best part of a first birthday in my opinion) so I decorated the backdrop with some red polka dot fabric. I bought a metre (similar to a yard), but I wished I had bought a bit more. I used a circle punch to decorate his highchair with colored card stock and put up some balloons. (Note to self – don’t use shiny tape to attach the balloons next time. It will drive you crazy in the photos and you’ll wish you knew how to photo shop them out. Also, place the balloons differently so your photos aren’t filled with more string than balloon. Meh.)

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – circus tent smash cake and party hat.

String and tape or not… I still got the adorable photos I was hoping for. It helps that he’s impossibly cute.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party – party hat and circus tent smash cake.   Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake aftermath.

For Judah’s party hat I used a pre-made hat with tinsel trim and covered it in felt to personalize it a little and added a pom pom on the top.

Circus party smash cake after shots:

One of the things I always try to make sure of is that we get some family photos after the party, just in case we didn’t take enough during the party (when we’re busy having fun). Of course, with cake-smeared Judah it made it even more fun.

For the rest of us, at least.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake after shots.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake after shots.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake after shots.

And of course self-timer family shots always work beautifully.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake after shots.

And as long as we’re covered in cake anyway, might as well also play naked in the sandbox, right??

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party smash cake aftermath

Every birthday is a special one in our house… but there’s something especially special about a child’s first birthday. For us it meant lots of reminiscing about carrying and praying for Judah during pregnancy (and all the unknowns and the possibility of Down Syndrome) as well as reflecting on the miracle of birth itself (and one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments of my life – my successful VBAC).

We’re so grateful for this precious little fair-haired, blue-eyed boy (and all that he’s taught us), and we loved spending an entire day celebrating his life with family and friends and each other.

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-43

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-42

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-41

Judah's First Birthday Circus Party-44

Happiest birthday to our Judah Matthew. Even if it was nearly a year ago. *smile*

Judah's First Birthday 12 month photos


Want more party-on-a-budget inspiration? Here are a few more kids birthday parties that I’ve blogged about:

Levi’s 1st birthday Sock Monkey Party

Levi’s 2nd birthday Cowboy Party

Levi’s 3rd birthday rock star party

Dear friends, I hope you’ve found this party post helpful. The most important thing is that you do what’s fun for you and—most importantly—for your birthday boy/girl! I just happen to like being creative on a limited income and getting crafty so I find kids parties a fun “excuse” to get my craft on! In saying that, if the party outgrows your time, ability, patience, or budget then I believe we have a problem. 🙂 Have some fun and make sure you and your littles ENJOY the party. 



About Author

Adriel Booker is an author, speaker, and advocate based in Sydney, Australia who believes storytelling, beauty, and the grace of God will change the world. Adriel has become a trusted voice in areas of motherhood and parenting, Christian spirituality, and global women's issues. She's also known for her work with the Love A Mama Collective—serving under-resourced women in developing nations through safe birth initiatives—as well as her years spent as a Bible teacher and leadership coach. Her latest book is Grace Like Scarlett: Grieving with Hope after Miscarriage and Loss and she's made the companion grief journal available for free. Find Adriel across all social media platforms at @adrielbooker or sign up for LoveNotes, Adriel's 'secret posts' that aren't published anywhere else online. ✌️


  • Rachel
    8 July 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Jason’s not around for me to ask sooo…what’s a Cracker Jack?! Even my phone seems to know what it is. Beautiful party – I can’t believe Judah’s nearly 2!

  • Nina
    19 July 2013 at 2:08 am

    Wow that looks like an amazing party; looks so professional! I love the photo booth idea, too. And yes, what better way to make even more mess than mixing cake with sand! Kids… 🙂
    Nina recently posted..How to ask for a child-friendly, flexible work scheduleMy Profile

  • Yvette
    24 February 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you for your free printables. These will make my organisation much easier as I tend to spend WAY too much time in Photoshop trying to do it myself.
    Lovely party!

    • Adriel
      9 March 2014 at 3:41 pm

      you’re welcome yvette. hope you have a super fun party. 🙂

  • Bama Proctor
    27 September 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Attaching clown to ladder was brilliant-it was all adorable-
    especially the baby

  • Joy
    8 July 2015 at 1:19 am

    So, I was thinking of having a circus themed party for my son’s first birthday, and saw your post on Pinterest. Pinned it and opened the site a month later. And realised that it’s exactly what I needed. Because my son’s name is also JUDAH! Especially the “Judah is one” sign! Isn’t that funny?

    • Adriel Booker
      18 July 2015 at 3:47 pm

      Ahaha, too perfect! Happy birthday little Judah! 🙂

  • Jessica
    10 July 2015 at 8:43 am

    Hi! I love your party signs & was going to download & print to use for our church Sunday School Circus Spectacular, but when I open the link, there are letters missing from each sign. Can you help me with this? Thanks, Jessica

    • Adriel Booker
      18 July 2015 at 3:46 pm

      Strange, Jessica! They are working fine for me. I’m sorry but I’m not sure how to help you. Maybe try another browser or something?

  • Melissa
    24 July 2015 at 8:21 am

    This is just adorable!! I am super inspired by how easy you did it 🙂

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    15 March 2016 at 12:40 pm

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  • Katie
    21 March 2019 at 11:52 pm

    Hello! I was wondering how you cut the licorice so thin for the smash cake. It looks great!



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