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The Trickiest Party of All

Catherine Despont on Birthday Rituals

Commemoration is a tricky business. Marking the passage of time seems as complicated as trying to stop it. The dates of important occasions have a sort of ritual magic that demands action. And so, for some significant anniversaries, preparation starts weeks, months or even years in advance. The celebration must rise to the occasion it recalls, so it makes sense that buildings, monuments and institutions celebrate only certain milestones. Under the pressure of planning, even the strongest among us have resorted to clowns and kazoos.

My own birthday has always required some special negotiation. The tiny grade school I attended had a strict policy about invitations to parties: less than five or all eighteen. If you were planning to invite more than one-third of the class, then everyone had to be invited. That dictum has served as a personal rule ever since: I stick to gatherings that are either very private or very public.

This was an introduction to both the complexities of celebration and the intricacies of compiling a guest list. Of all the days of the year, I felt the one in my honor shouldn’t have to include a nemesis snickering at my gifts or rambunctious boys tearing down my decorations. And yet to have a party that wasn’t well attended was a disappointment too. In a class with only seventeen others, the fact that fewer than five people would come to your party was also a referendum of sorts.

The birthday’s unique status among events is confirmed by the lack of consensus on how we commemorate it. The possibilities are extraordinarily various, and selecting one requires a complex formula involving age, mood, astrology and our social nexus. There are years I want to spend my birthday with just a couple of people, and others in which only a big group will do. Some people like their gatherings loose and noncommittal—they commingle at bars with people at happy hour or give the coordinates of the park where they plan to be picnicking. Others prefer the assurance of formalities: a seating plan, catering and RSVPs. Still, for all the planning, it’s usually the unexpected that makes the occasion: to be remembered by someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, for the sentiment to be spontaneous and the gifts to be an actual surprise. We can try to set the stage for a happy birthday, but in the end success often falls to chance or the stars.

A birthday is much more than its celebration. It can be a reprieve, a small vacation or an omen. Germans start them at midnight to observe the full twenty-four hours. And the Swedes bring you breakfast in bed, which strikes me as a good approach. It suggests a grace period—an interval when daily routines are lifted, an indulgence—as though the world might actually conform to your desires for once. We may expect special treatment, and often we actually get some. (My birthday has gotten me reservations at fully booked restaurants and even,once, out of a speeding ticket.) On our day we look to the weather and traffic and other random events to auger our fate. Even adults expect things to cooperate: Some people are proactive and take the day off of work; others leave it to chance. Some see what happens that day as a sign of the coming year; others view it as a retrospective of the year past.

We rarely escape our natal day without spectacle. There are strange hats, sneak attacks and the scattered applause or choral singing of strangers at restaurants. The birthday ritual rarely escapes its occult roots entirely. Even astrological agnostics know something about the planetary alignments at their births, and blame a Cancer rising or Mercury retrograde when life doesn’t go according to plan. Outside of childhood, our birthday is also the only time we are sung to. Perhaps some vestige of chanting? And aside from marriage and the Hippocratic oath, the birthday wish is one of the few vows we take publicly. Sweet and buttery though it may be, our birthday dessert presentation is probably the last trace of personal magic rituals: The combination of fire, breath and witnesses marks a potent ceremony, especially when the birthday ends in a zero.

In the end what makes a birthday special are the raised stakes, the upped ante. It’s not just a day we hope will go well, it’s one when we admit our hopes for the future. In Quebec, they add an extra verse after the traditional birthday song that goes: Mon cher ami, c’est à ton tour de te laisser parler d’amour. Which translates as, “My dear friend, it’s your turn to let yourself speak of love.” But even if this year’s birthday doesn’t bring love, there’s still an excellent chance of champagne.

Catherine Despont considers favorite birthday rituals