Who Knew Birthday Parties Could Be Political?

Are We Too Old for Birthday Parties?


There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your birthday in a quiet way by eating cake with a few friends! (Charlotte Canner/The Observer)

Published: November 8, 2007

I had my last birthday party when I was 12 years old. It was pre-teen bliss in the form of junk food, amateur makeovers, movies, music and promises of “Best Friends Forever.” When I turned 13, I started to dislike birthdays. This was the year I learned how political birthday celebrations can be. By “political,” I’m referring to the sixth definition provided by dictionary.com, “6. Based on or motivated by partisan—or self-serving objectives.

When I tried to plan my 13th birthday party, I ran into a number of problems. Some of my friends refused to attend my party if I insisted on inviting certain people they didn’t particularly like. I felt obligated to invite people who I didn’t necessarily enjoy spending time with but who had invited me to their parties. I wondered whether certain “cool” people would think it was presumptuous of me to expect them to show up to my party or whether they’d get offended if I didn’t include them. I knew my guests would think it’d be lame to invite my little sister, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

All these concerns hung over my head for two weeks. In the end, I ripped up the birthday invitations I bought from the drugstore and succumbed to the idea of having cake with my family. This was the beginning of my birthday celebration boycott.

I imagine that most of you have had a similar experience. If you didn’t have this problem when you were 13, think back to the year of “Sweet 16” bashes. How many candle ceremonies were you a part of? I won’t tell you how many I was included in … it’s an embarrassing figure.

It turns out, 21-year-olds are even worse than 13- and 16-year-olds. The politics of birthday celebrations are not a phenomena of the teenage years; they continue to contaminate any enjoyment one might find in a quiet and serene acknowledgment of her existence on the day on which she entered this world. I think that at this point in our lives, we should be able to happily and peacefully commemorate with our friends the awe of being alive and simply existing.

As I watched my friends turn 21 in the months before my own 21st birthday, I realized that most of us have politicized our birthdays. A great majority of us seem to be having birthday parties to see how many people will show up, checking Facebook to see how many birthday posts we get; We wait for the awkward phone calls from people we haven’t talked to for 11 months just to see who remembers, and we expect a great number of gifts and free lunches to match the value of our lives.

I’ve seen people stop communicating with those who were unable to attend their birthday parties, even though birthday wishes were warmly extended to the birthday person. I’ve heard people sneer at others for the lack of attention given to them on their day, and I know of people who keep track of those who remember their birthdays and those who don’t.

I understand that birthdays are special and we want others to remember and celebrate our lives on those days, and we should—but I think we’re taking the whole birthday thing a little too far. It’s just another day, after all. On my birthday this year, when my friend asked me how my day was going, I told her it was just another day. Her response was annoyed (and annoying), “Oh, you’re one of those …”

I am of the opinion that each of us should be “one of those.” We’re adults now. Please put the birthday hats and noisemakers away. Have a drink, and dwell on what it means to really exist. You might realize the enormity of your mortality. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that how many people show up to your birthday bash demonstrates nothing about the worth of your existence.