Christmas and New Year’s are just around the corner, and that means one thing: You have to pretend to happily celebrate the holiday birthdays of family and friends. Yes, do that in between the times you are inching through traffic at the mall or after standing in line at the post office. Or right after desperately searching your closet for something to wear to the office holiday party you forgot about but must attend.
It’s little wonder people aren’t jolly when faced with a holiday birthday.
I understand. How can I not? I was a Christmas Eve baby. And ever since my age was more than a single digit, I realized celebrating my birthday was a major pain to even my nearest and dearest. Shopping, cooking, baking, parties — they take their toll. Add a birthday into the mix, and it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the jolliest among us.
The good news? Holiday birthday people like me know our "special" days are the previews and ending credits in your real-life holiday movie. And that’s fine. The holiday music, the kinship, and the lights have already provided us with spectacular celebrations. And most of us really don’t need or want the spotlight.
But what should you do to honor your I-love-you-but-why-is-your-birthday-now friend or family member? I present five of my most vivid birthday memories to guide you and your loved ones toward more joy and less angst this holiday season.
1. Kids deserve separate gifts.
I remember the kids in our neighborhood were all hyper-aware of each other’s birthdays. You know, it’s a big deal to go from age six-and-a-half to seven! Oftentimes, we’d spend a few dollars to buy the birthday buddy a modest gift — think nail polish, a hairband, or a small toy (yes, it was a simpler time). Weeks after the birthday, we’d all still ooh and ahh over the presents the lucky birthday girl or boy received.
So when my birthday rolled around I was so excited to see what friends gave me. And each year it was... nothing. No one remembered. Oh, occasionally during holiday gift exchanges someone would hand me a Santa paper-wrapped item and say the gift was for both my birthday and Christmas. Now that I’m an adult I understand. But when I was a kid, that hurt.
Lesson learned: If your kid receives a birthday gift from a young friend or relative, that child deserves to receive one in return. And don’t wrap it in Christmas paper. Yes, you’re busy, but really — kids deserve birthday paper.
2. Just ask what he or she wants.
Early in our marriage, my husband asked me how I wanted to celebrate my birthday. One year, we had a lovely, elegant dinner out with two of our dearest friends. This year, I asked my family to go with me to breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants. Last year, I asked my husband to buy a bottle of my favorite wine so we could share it with a few friends.
We love this tradition.
As a Christmas Eve baby, I know what is feasible to do and what isn’t. I also have a better handle on the social plans of family and friends. So my suggestions save my husband time and frustration — and I have just the celebration that I want.
Lesson learned: Make life easier on yourself and the (adult) birthday person. Ask for celebration ideas. They have spent a lifetime discovering what's available and what isn’t.
3. Plan a party that people can attend.
For obvious reasons, none of my childhood friends could attend a real party — lunch, cake, balloons, gifts — on my actual birthday.
When I was about to turn five, my mom sent out invitations weeks in advance for a party to celebrate my birthday. The kicker: It was scheduled for three weeks before my actual birthdate. She followed up with telephone calls (remember those?) to parents.
The party was on a Saturday afternoon and all of my friends attended. And no one brought me an obvious Christmas gift. It remains one of my happiest birthday memories.
Lesson learned: Don’t be a stickler for exact dates.
4. Modify traditions.
Michael, the brother of one of my college boyfriends, was born on Christmas Day. The family gathered at one member’s house every Christmas Eve. If you’ve ever seen reenactments of the feasts of King Henry VIII filled with wine bottles, turkey legs, pies, and belly-busting gluttony, you have an idea of the volume of food and drink that was consumed. Presents were exchanged, songs were sung, gossip was shared and everyone left happy and fulfilled.
Yet, when Christmas Day rolled around, everyone was too spent to celebrate anything else — including Michael's birthday.
I can still see him in my mind’s eye sitting in the living room of his mom’s house, blankly looking at a smattering of birthday cards a few folks had given him the previous evening. He never said anything about it, but it was sad.
Lesson learned: Family traditions are important, but so are individual members. Carve out just a bit of time to celebrate the holiday birthday person while everyone is still fresh and festive.
5. If you don’t want to celebrate, don’t celebrate.
Don’t force yourself to celebrate. Yes, it’s often expected. But as adults we can make choices. And if you’re going to put a damper on someone’s birthday, skip it.
I wish one person had done so a few years ago when my husband and I traveled halfway across the country to celebrate Christmas with close family. Unbeknownst to me, my husband and mother-in-law planned a “surprise” cake to honor my day. They slipped out of the room leaving me and a few other family members sitting quietly at the dinner table, looking out at the gently falling snow.
Suddenly a family-member-who-shall-remain-nameless acted in a way that would rival any actor’s portrayal of Scrooge. He hissed that no other family member had a birthday at a time when we all gathered, so it was wrong to celebrate mine. Did I mention my father had died a month earlier? Yes, I forgave him — but I still think of it every time I see him.
Lesson learned: Those of us that have birthdays that all on or near holidays didn’t choose them. We know they are a pain. We are sorry. If you don’t want to celebrate, don’t. It’s better to annoy people with your absence than offend them with your hostility.
One of the best ways to help a holiday birthday person celebrate? Simply by giving just a bit of time and energy to their day. That’s sure to add merriment everyone enjoys — but if you aren't sure, just ask. They'll probably be glad you remembered.
This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.