Simple, Meaningful Birthday Traditions

Josie Ortega discovers that the childhood birthday rituals that make the biggest impression aren’t necessarily elaborate parties. Read on for easy, thoughtful, unforgettable birthday traditions.

Simple, Meaningful Birthday Traditions

As I look toward our family’s upcoming birthday and holiday season, I’m feeling the crunch of the calendar, and also, ahem, the budget. Four of the five birthdays in our immediate family occur in the next three months. Plus Christmas. (But who’s counting? I am. I’m the festivity drill sergeant in our family. Even though it’s a job I love, it’s still a task requiring effort.)

Birthday celebration possibilities are plentiful! I’m in awe of Braver Parents Than I, who host parties at Chuck E. Cheese. Others thrive on clever theme parties—we ourselves loved hosting a big ol’ Tailgate Party as a joint celebration for all three kids, complete with the ham biscuits on Hawaiian rolls that, I’m pretty sure, could be instrumental in brokering world peace.

Naturally, I’m also a big fan of those parties where parents bring a cake, commandeer a picnic table at the local park, and watch the kids burn that sugar energy on the playground for as long as possible.

This year, I’m trying to block out comparison and the pressure of what other classmates do, or how other families celebrate birthdays. Or even how we ourselves have celebrated in the past! We all know that people matter more than things; that excessive consumerism is not the way to anyone’s heart or to a healthy family life.

And yet . . . it’s wonderful to feel celebrated in an abundant way. Even so, especially with young children, that extra oomph doesn’t have to entail gratuitous spending. It’s all about the bonus thought, reminding each child that he or she is known and loved.

perfect birthday cake costco

Simple, Meaningful Birthday Morning Traditions

Starting in the morning ensures that the kid can’t complain that no one remembered his birthday!

My mom used to crawl into bed with me on the morning of my birthday to tell me the story of when I was born, and that’s what I do with my kids. Just the highlights! In my case, my dad danced around the delivery room, overcome with excitement that I was a girl, and Dr. Dilts asked my mom, “Is this the man you were married to before?” Then they counted my ten fingers and ten toes.

Festive decorations go a long way, like streamers on the bedroom door to discover in the morning. I like to set the breakfast table with fancy dishes and some kind of ribbons or festive something hanging from the chandelier. And—maybe it’s more fun for younger kids who are proud of their counting ability—however many balloons for however many years.

My friend’s mom always tied a Mylar balloon to her chair. If it’s the night before and you just cannot bring yourself to head to the grocery store, raid your gift wrap stash and tie ribbons to the back of the chair at the breakfast table. Speaking of breakfast:

Serve a special breakfast. One year at our house, it was donuts. And the next time around, we acknowledged that donuts are essentially cake, so we had cupcakes. With a generous glass of milk for the protein, of course!

Breakfast in bed is a solid, and very exciting, option. Our close-to-Christmas birthday girl loved making cinnamon rolls with me last year the day before her birthday, but not as much as she LOVED being served said rolls on a tray in bed the next morning. NOTHING IS FANCIER.

Special Goodies as Birthday Traditions

A little goes a long way. Do you remember that “You Are Special” Plate? We certainly had it at our house growing up! Other ideas might include:

  • Selecting a special outfit to wear to school, instead of the uniform.
  • Festive napkins in the lunch box.
  • A note in the lunch box.
  • Sending stickers or other small treats for the birthday child to share with classmates.
  • Delivering a Happy Meal lunch to school.
  • Flying a birthday flag outside your house, so THE WHOLE WORLD KNOWS!
birthday traditions

Simple, Meaningful Birthday Choices

Birthday Dinner. Life is simpler when it’s clear who’s calling the shots on where to eat. The Birthday Girl or Birthday Boy gets to decide! Dinner A Love Story’s Jenny Rosenstrach created a tradition wherein her girls chose a different nationality each year to explore for birthday dinner. If it’s exciting for your child to choose where to eat, you may just get away with a budget-friendly fast-food family birthday celebration!

It’s the little things: whatever your children usually argue about, this week, the birthday kid can determine. Take cereal for instance. When Mom or Dad heads out for the grocery run on the week of your birthday, you have the privilege of selecting your favorite cereal. Will it be Lucky Charms? Or Trix?? Make it count; this is all your sugar cereal until next year.

Birthday Outing. In the spirit of experiences over things, a child might choose an outing rather than a toy, or in lieu of a party: a trip to the movie theater with a friend or two, bowling, apple picking, baseball game, getting a mani/pedi with Mama (YES!).

Last year for Jack’s third birthday, we ate pizza and had a family dance party. It was perfect.

Simple, Meaningful Birthday Love

My friend Julie was worried when her daughter’s birthday fell on the day the family drove six hours to the beach. Turns out, she spent a little effort to make the experience special with streamers in the car and painted windows, and her daughter now asks, “Can I have a Car Birthday again??”


Are they loved? Yes they are! Feel free to simplify elaborate expectations. Let’s find some rainbow sprinkles or other festive treats, and listen to our kids to figure out what would make them feel cherished on their birthdays.

Each child’s celebration will look different, with the common characteristics of special attention and family time together. Bottom line: let those kiddos hear over and over—we’re so happy that you were born.

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