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This is a guest post from Krista Gilbert of kristagilbert.com
When I was growing up, birthdays consisted of a cake, a few presents, and friends sitting in a circle playing duck-duck goose. When I got older, I traded games for lip-syncing and air guitar. My mom didn’t stress about a color scheme, miniature flags decorating the cake, or whether or not the homemade pom-poms matched the party dress. In fact, there were no pom-poms.
I, on the other hand, am a Pinterest junkie who loves all of the details of throwing a complicated and well-designed party. For my daughter’s first birthday I had white tulle hanging from her high chair, a lavender homemade glitter crown, handmade invitations, and a sea of purple and white items displayed at varying heights just so on the table. Sure, it was beautiful, and the pictures turned out fabulous, but did my daughter need that kind of party? Was that the best way to spend her first birthday?
What I realized, as the years went by, is that I was spending far too much time thinking about the design of the parties, and too little time making them meaningful. I began asking myself, “what if you took all of that party motivation and energy and turned that toward making the birthday boy/girl feel especially honored?” And so I did.
I turned material to meaningful.
Decorations with matching plates and napkins are not a bad thing – in fact, that still happens in my house most of the time. I am a designer at heart and making parties aesthetically beautiful is an expression of art. But I now spend the majority of my time thinking through how to show honor to the one being celebrated, and how to mark the moment in a meaningful way.
Every human heart wants to be known and deeply loved. Birthdays provide an opportunity for us to practically demonstrate that kind of care. We get to single someone out, and shower them with a kindness that makes an impact. Birthdays provide an opportunity to love well and to water the soul planted in the garden of family. Let’s not miss that chance.
Here are 5 ways to make birthdays meaningful
Mark important birthdays with rituals.
When the kids in our extended family turn 13, they go on a walk down a path in the woods with a backpack. Along the way, they encounter various family members who give them a gift that represents something significant. When my nephew, Caleb, did it, we gave him objects that represented him, or that represented what we wanted him to take into the teen years. When my son, Dawson turned 13, we each gave him a book that had been significant in our life and wrote inside the cover about why that book had such an impact, and about our hopes for him.
This is not a new concept. Many cultures incorporate rituals and celebrate their children’s coming of age. These rituals help transition a child from childhood to adulthood in strength and confidence.
While most of us do not have these traditions in our culture, we can create ones in our families that mark special moments and send our children out into a new season of their lives.
Consider a person’s love language when planning a party.
When my daughter turned 16, each person in our family and extended family bought her a hand-stamped word or phrase and a charm to go with it. She is someone who values words of affirmation. We sat her by a campfire and one by one each person went out and presented her with their words and symbol. She changes out her necklace constantly, switching the charms and words around to fit different moods and occasions.
When my Dad had a stroke earlier this year, she put on his charm that said “Boppa’s Favorite” (he calls all of the grandkids his favorite). This helped her to hold him close during a vulnerable time.
What is your child’s love language? The five love languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts. How can you incorporate that into this year’s birthday celebration in a big or small way?
Think creatively about gifts.
Freshman year, my daughter took a photography class at school. About a quarter of the way through the class, she realized that she had a natural eye and aptitude for photography. That year, in place of a birthday gift, we gave her two private lessons with one of the best photographers in our area. Because I went with her, it was a bonding time for us, and it nurtured a budding interest, giving her more confidence and experience.
Recently one of my pastors surprised his wife with a trip to Washington DC. Not only was it meaningful to go visit our nation’s capital for her, but he also set up a coffee appointment with her favorite writer. This well-known author does not normally accept invitations, but he was so taken with this husband’s creativity and willingness to put himself out there on her behalf, he accepted. This hour long meeting turned out to be a divine appointment for my pastor’s wife.
What passions does your child, spouse, or friend have? How can you design a birthday around one of these, either in the celebration or as a gift?
Incorporate service or giving into the celebration
A few years ago my sister decided that she would plan her own birthday parties. But these weren’t going to be the usual lunch at a favorite restaurant, or coffee at Starbucks kinds of birthday parties. Instead, she would use her birthday as an opportunity to gather and bless others. Last year we potted plants in large containers and then delivered them anonymously to people’s doorsteps. We rang the doorbells and then ran! This year we participated in World Vision’s Walk for Water campaign. We created our own 6K race course in her neighborhood, and raised money for clean water.
Is there an organization that you would like to help instead of receiving gifts for your birthday? Could you take your child to see a non-profit in action? Or can you create discussions that increase awareness and compassion with your children?
One day a Heifer International booklet came in our mailbox. I talked to my 10 year old son about how these animals often determine whether a family will go hungry or have food to eat. He was so touched that he decided to forgo birthday gifts at his party, and instead raised money to buy a water buffalo for a family in Nepal through Heifer.
Create meaningful mini-traditions.
Mud pie is the birthday dessert of choice around our house. It’s tradition and no one dares break it. Another tradition is the birthday yes. Want cinnamon rolls for breakfast? Yes. Want to go jump in the lake? Yes. Want to watch your favorite movie? Yes.
What traditions can you create at each and every birthday?
Here are some more ideas:
- The Bistro: Make a special dinner and dessert every year for the birthday child (their favorite).
- The Birthday Hot Seat: Create a “hot seat” in the middle of the room. The birthday boy wears a crazy hat that is for birthdays only, and everyone tells him what they love about him.
- The Kidnap: Kidnap the birthday kid from school and go out to lunch.
- The Cake Smash: When the birthday boy blows out the candles, smash his head into the cake. Afterwards you can tell him why he is so smashing! This happened to my son when he celebrated his birthday in Costa Rica one year. It is a tradition there. He loved it!
- Balloon Bomb: Fill a box, a car, or a room with balloons filled with special notes and money.
- The Auntie Date: Take your nieces or nephews on a special one-on-one date for their birthday. It’s rare that an aunt or uncle gets that kind of quality time. When possible, I do this with my nieces (I have eight of them), and I treasure that time.
- The Hidden Cupcake: Fill a ceramic cupcake, or other container, with a surprise. Hide it somewhere in the house. Have the birthday girl or boy go hunting for it.
Birthdays are a chance for us to take time out to truly celebrate people in a special and unique way. When thoughtfully considered, they offer us an opportunity to express just how much that person means to us. Let’s place our focus, time and energy into what matters most; not the decorations on the table, but the heart behind why we are celebrating in the first place.
Krista Gilbert lives in a small lakeside town in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She likes to cook for a crowd. In fact, the bigger the crowd, the bigger the party. Her first book, Reclaiming Home: A Family’s Guide For Life, Love, and Legacy, released this year and shares many of the practical ways she makes her family functional, meaningful, intentional, and fun. At the center of all of this is Krista’s deep faith and her love for the people God has placed at her table. You will find her online at kristagilbert.com or daring families at meaninginaminute.com
Share Your Thoughts: How do you create meaningful birthdays in your home?