For most of us, birthday celebrations get smaller each year, as the well-attended, sugar-fuelled shindigs of childhood morph into a card or two through the door and a lacklustre “I might nip to the pub, you fancy it?” However, while many are content to let the occasion pass without fanfare, we all know someone who champions the cause year after year, marking each and every birthday with as much enthusiasm as they did their 18ths – booking restaurants, holding parties and demanding RSVPs.
Here, journalist and proud birthday backer Kate Townshend argues there are benefits to marking your birthday in style, and explains why getting another year older isn’t something to be swept under the carpet with the leftover party streamers.
Many of my favourite childhood memories are about birthday parties – both mine and my sister’s. We’re talking slightly wonky (but lovingly made) cake in the shape of a hedgehog; the distinctive tang of candle smoke; Fox’s Party Rings; cheese and pineapple on sticks, and drop-waisted party dresses – the whole, glorious Eighties shtick.
I am intensely grateful to my mum for marking these early birthdays as joyous occasions, but I’m also aware that somewhere in your 20s, you’re supposed to stop feeling the need to celebrate your birthday with quite the same spirit of reckless enjoyment.
You’re allowed to make a bit of a fuss for the decade-based milestones of course, but otherwise you’re supposed to pretend you can’t even remember when your own birthday is, with a dismissive chuckle as if you’re far too busy doing grown-up things to express such a childish desire for cake and presents.
But though it makes me a bit of an anomaly among some of my friends, I’ve never really believed that birthday parties need to be sacrificed on the altar of adulthood. I might have left the Party Rings behind now I’m in my 30s (more’s the pity), but I still make a point of celebrating my birthday every year, one way or another. To me, it’s one of life’s little rituals – as comforting and grounding as the first barbecue of the summer or the annual return of Bake Off to our screens (despite this year’s channel-changing trauma).
And I’m inclined to think more people should give adult birthdays a go, because they’re wonderfully egalitarian affairs. You don’t need to meet the love of your life, or have a baby, or spend years studying to qualify for this annual celebration – and there’s something rather affirming about having a stocktake of where you are in your life with the people closest to you.
Even better, because birthdays don’t require you to follow some societally pre-approved script for nice things, they also don’t come weighed down with all of the expectations and pressures that weddings and christenings often do. You can do anything you like for a birthday celebration – from home-made canapés and cocktails and a quiz written by your husband in your own front room (how I celebrated my 32nd) to dinner and dancing in a strange city and pretending you’re starring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (me again, turning 28).
There’s no financial bar to entry and the only ‘traditional’ (but still entirely optional) features are cake and a rendition of Happy Birthday – literally the sole occasion in your life where the people who love you the most will stand around and sing at you in unison, regardless of skill or musicality. It’s weird but lovely, as many of the best things in life are.
More seriously, choosing to celebrate my birthday year on year is a way of reminding myself that every year I do have things to celebrate.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when I’ve thought and fought my way through the usual anxious tangles of ‘no one will come,’ and ‘what if everyone assumes I’m some terrible Kardashian-esque narcissist, planning a night that’s all about me-me-me?’ But on the other side of these worries are the simple facts: most people like being invited to parties, and it’s probably OK if an occasional evening is just a little bit about me.
Of course, there’s also the assumption that we go off parties because they are a very clear marking of the passage of time – that eventually, we all find birthdays less of a reason to celebrate and more a reason to cry into our gin and tonics as we’re hit by the existentialist realisation that the years just keep coming.
I loathe the notion that above a certain level your age becomes a mildly shameful fact about yourself, something you should avoid drawing attention to at all costs, much like the days when women had to feign mortification if a tampon fell out of their purse. I’ll be 37 when my birthday rolls around next month, but on its own that’s an entirely empty fact. These days there are as many ways to be 37 as there are shades of lipstick – and like lipstick, we’re all free to choose the shade that suits us best.
In this sense, a birthday party can be a way to remind yourself that how you live and behave and what you value is a choice – whether you’re 37 or 42 or 25 or 99. Mine will always involve food and drink and friends (and probably late-night conversations about how I still don’t really feel like a grown-up at all and I’m starting to wonder if I ever really will).
And at some point on or around the day, I’ll probably find my mum will have made me an adorably wonky cake shaped like a hedgehog.
Kate Townshend is a freelance journalist who loves books, gin, birthdays and puppies – occasionally all at the same time. She firmly believes you are never too old for ice cream, Bonfire Night or a really good game of hide and seek. Follow her on Twitter @_katetownshend
Images: Pexels / Serge Solovev / Kate Townshend