The Birthday Imperative

One summer when I was about ten years old, it happened that most of my massive extended family were in the same city at the same time. So naturally, we did what anybody in that situation would do. We had a huge collective birthday party.  I can’t remember if the group of age two to 70 year olds was broken down according to month or year, but we must have sung “happy birthday to you” approximately 12 or 13 times that afternoon.  There was one cake. By the time we were ready to eat it, the sorry thing was a weeping mess of waxy crumbs and melted icing. There were no presents, no fancy clothes, no guests. We did it outside. It was brilliant.

A couple of years later, birthdays were completely outlawed in the extended family. Some of us nuclear offshoots quietly and surreptitiously continued to dabble in the self-indulgent self-celebration, but for others, birthdays became a time for a bit of group prayer, and maybe some cake. Maybe.

Having passed the age where presents (Lots of them! All kinds!) were a major priority (moving smoothly into my self-righteous teen austerity years), I gave the development an inward nod.

Then I got married and had children. And while I wish I could say that I was able to take the best of my incisive teenage social commentary and blend it with my child-self’s love of a rocking good party, the reality has been a bit of a muddle of misunderstandings, trampled feelings and temper tantrums – at least amongst the various adults who feel they have a stake in our preschoolers’ birthdays.

The assault of Barbies and princesses is only a part of it. It’s the stuff. With all of its stuff-related baggage, an airtight little pre-school lesson in capitalist consumption. A bachannalian orgy of materialism with my poor, innocent children at its core, as we stand helplessly on the sidelines.

So I consulted the Oracle at Google, and I found this and then this, and I was a bit relieved, but also a bit skeptical about how well it would work with our little ones. And our big ones. But it got the wheels turning, and by and by I remembered the tradition in the Middle East, where I grew up, according to which the person celebrating their birthday is expected to treat everyone else. And I started doing some hard thinks about the kind of example I’m setting for the kids as far as consumption and giving are concerned…and that was just a whole new can of worms.

So given that it was my birthday last week and I got a few presents, I had a chat with my four year old about what kinds of things I could give away. Her ideas were, shall we say, abstract. But it was a good start. For both of us. And I think – hope – it will go interesting places. In spite of the orgy of consumption that continues around us.



  1. Thanks for the link, and love reading this! Glad we found each other, and I’m eager to hear how it goes! Peace, Megan at Having Enough (in a “Have-It-All” World)

  2. I struggle with this problem EVERY Christmas! On my side of the family, we give very small gifts and have more fun with the get-together and food part of the holiday. On my husband’s side, it’s an over-the-top gift-a-thon. It makes me so uncomfortable, as most of what I get are things that I don’t need or even appreciate. It takes the whole morning to open gifts and the room is full of ripped wrapping paper. Ugh! Now that I have a baby, I’m really worried about what message he’ll be learning from this annual tradition. I’m not sure how to broach the subject with my in-laws without offending them. Any suggestions?
    Thanks for the great post!

    • el

      Thanks for your comment, Karla. Unfortunately, I have no tips. As such, my track record in this area involves holding my tongue, then blurting out the wrong thing at the wrong time. Everyone leaves crying. It’s win-win all the way 🙂

      • That’s hilarious! Boy, I’d love to let loose some of my thoughts at the next Sunday dinner. But I think I’ll hold my tongue!

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