We are entering birthday season here in the Campbell household. 4 out of the 5 of us have birthdays within 3 months of each other, starting with Alex at the end of this month. And I’m starting to feel the stress that always accompanies this time of year — the stress of deciding how to celebrate and planning the parties. Of course, Rusty and I don’t typically have parties anymore, although I feel like we should do something special to celebrate Rusty’s 40th birthday this year! But Alex has had enough birthdays that he expects some kind of celebration, and Stephen, who will be turning 4 in April, is starting to figure it out as well.
Over the years, I have tried hard to curb the excessive consumerism that often accompanies birthday celebrations and be creative in the ways we celebrate. For each of our kids’ first birthdays, we did a first birthday time capsule (to be opened when they turn 18) and asked party attendees (family, close friends, and teammates) to bring a small token for the time capsule in lieu of gifts. The second birthday party for both Alex and Stephen involved playtime (at the Taco Bell play-place for Alex and a local park for Stephen), and we will probably do this for Ben’s 2nd birthday party as well.
We have done “venue” birthday parties a couple of times at Bounce U. I am always surprised at how expensive venue-type parties are, even when you just go with the basic, cheapest package. I wouldn’t normally choose to do these kinds of parties, but when we were in the middle of a big transition and just couldn’t host the party in our own home, it was pretty much our only option. We have also done venue parties where we didn’t pay for the party package — we just went and played and then had cake and ice-cream at home. We have done this at both Chuck-E-Cheese and Jungle Java, and it was just as fun and a lot less expensive!
Alex had a “traditonal” birthday party the year he turned three with friends, games, presents, cake, and party-favors, and although I really thought I kept it simple in comparison to other parties, I was worn out by the end of it. I’m sure part of it had to do with the fact that I was about 8 months pregnant at the time, but it was an exhausting day. And it wasn’t just hard on me, but on some of the kids too, including my son, who were over-stimulated and overwhelmed by all the activity.
And then there is always the issue of the gifts. Really, do my kids need anymore toys? They don’t play with and appreciate all the ones they already have! But they have been to enough birthday parties of other kids, that they are starting to associate a birthday party with “getting more stuff.” So, what to do? Once, Alex went to a party where the birthday girl did not open her presents at the party, but opened them later after the guests left. I had never seen this before, but I thought it was a wonderful idea! No awkward moments of realizing you gave the same gift as someone else, or something the birthday child already had. No feeling bad because you gave a $10 gift, while someone else gave a gift that obviously cost much more. And the other kids didn’t have to stand around and watch while one person opened present after present. Older kids understand this, but it is SO difficult for the younger ones.
Over the years, I have tried different things to combat the “have party, get stuff” attitude. A couple of times, we had a “no gifts” party, and we explained to the kids beforehand that they wouldn’t be receiving any presents at the party. They were usually having so much fun playing that they neither noticed nor cared. And they still received presents from family, and from grandparents (things they either really wanted or needed), which they opened later at home, so it wasn’t like there were NO presents, just no presents at the actual party.
Last year, for Alex’s sixth birthday, we asked guests not to bring presents, but to consider a cash donation, which we would then give to World Vision. You can read all about it here on our family blog. I love the idea of using a birthday party to bless other less fortunate children. I have also heard of parties where instead of presents, the birthday child has a toy drive or a book drive, and they donate everything to a local charity or children’s hospital. I would like to continue this tradition, but I’m still trying to figure out how it would work now that we live overseas.
In some ways, we are naturally insulated against the big-birthday-party-with-lots-of-presents tradition. Since we homeschool, it’s not like our kids have a bunch of classmates to invite to a party. When we have Alex’s party at the end of this month, we’ll probably invite his cousins and his good friend Micah from the homeschool group, and maybe of couple of the kids that he’s met through T-ball, but that’s it.
The older my kids get and the more birthday parties I plan, the more I feel like what I really want their parties to be is a time to celebrate their lives and have a good time with a few close friends. I’d love to hear ideas for creative and frugal birthday celebrations and traditions. Leave your thoughts in the comments.