In our house, when it comes to birthdays, we go kind of nuts. In fact, it’s not uncommon for multiple celebrations to take place across multiple days and to have many discussions about presents, party themes…and food. Lots of food. As I share in my new book How to Celebrate Everything, in our house, we don’t celebrate birthdays as much as we stage birthdaypaloozas.
This is because, the way I figure things, a) we don’t have that many years to go crazy for our daughters’ birthdays, and b) rituals related to birthdays, in my experience, have more warm-and-fuzzy memory potential than most.
While birthday celebrations can veer toward the absurd in our house, birthday rituals don't have to be big and fancy to be memorable. Here are a few ideas that you can do without very much advance planning.
If your house is like ours, most mornings are a 30-minute whirlwind of lunch-making, bagel-toasting, backpack packing, and all around get-yourself-ready nagging. If you can swing it, try to do a few things the night before your son or daughter's birthday to make the morning go smoother, and serve him or her his favorite breakfast, whether that's pancakes, waffles, or the local bakery's blueberry muffin he loves so much. Don't forget to stick a candle in whatever you serve.
My friends Sara and Mike make a celebratory throne at the breakfast table for their kids on birthdays. They tie balloons and ribbons to a chair and surround the place setting with gifts and cards.
Have the birthday celebrant pick whatever dinner he or she wants even if the little sister objects, even if the older brother whines. Ask in advance so you can try to do a few things ahead of time.
Eat in the dining room on the fine china instead of the kitchen table. Break out the fancy napkins and place cards.
We had a ritual with our daughters when they were younger—we asked them to pick a country (any country!) and we'd find a restaurant that served that kind of cuisine. (One year, my youngest picked Sweden and she's had a love affair with Swedish meatballs ever since.) This is easier if you live in or near to a city (we live just outside New York), but it's fun to give them control over the day and feels like an adventure.
One year, when my older daughter was little, I forgot about sending cupcakes into school with her on her birthday. Instead, at the last minute, I bought a bunch of doughnut holes, stacked them up into a cake shape, stuck some candles in and called it a day. It took five minutes, and of course, it became the most requested classroom treat forever after.
A birthday is also a good place to take stock of the little traditions you already have in place. Some examples: How about that time when your son turned double digits and you spontaneously treated him to a double scoop at the local ice-cream shop? Or snuck a happy birthday note into his spelling workbook? Or the time you discreetly asked the waiter to place a candle in his hamburger when you went out for dinner on his 6th birthday? These might’ve been one-time gestures that you’ve long forgotten, but I’d be willing to bet they are preserved in happy memory amber somewhere in your child’s brain. Ask him about his most favorite birthday memories, take careful notes, and then milk them for all they are worth for as many years as you possibly can.