My son will turn one this year and I worry we’ll feel pressure to throw him a big party this October (and pretty much every other October until he hits puberty). While my son won’t be aware of Canadian birthday party traditions this young, my wife and I sure are. We’ve noticed many kids birthday parties are characterized by organized chaos and a heavy dose of capitalist consumption. Sometimes getting the newest hot wheels doll or Pokémon doll can seem to be more of the raison-d’etre of children’s birthday parties than actually celebrating the child’s special day with family (and friends). With this in mind, I took a quick world tour to see how other countries and peoples celebrate birthdays. Here’s what I learned:

Drop the routine

A German tradition I found and liked combines unique decorations – including special candles ringing a special wooden wreath (go reusability!) – with taking a break. During their special day, children are exempt from homework and chores. Sounds like a great gift to me! I like this tradition because, rather than centering the occasion on things like toys and gifts, the birthday is made special through experience. Instead of chores, kids can do a special outing with their family or friends.

Build out ceremony

The usual ceremony in a Western birthday is the cake and candles combined with opening a gaggle of presents. In China, when a child turns one, parents have a ceremony where they tell the baby’s fortune by surrounding them with objects (ie. coins, dolls, books, etc) and watching which thing they choose. Each object connects to a career choice. While this might be a little too prescriptive for some families, choosing an object could be broadened to point towards interest or passions that can be nourished. It’s also fun because it incorporates in a ritual element with deeper meaning that all too often is missing in modern consumption fests.

Broaden perspectives

Nothing builds excitement (and bedlam) like a crazy birthday party complete with balloons, cake, a dozen screaming kids and perhaps even an (evil?) clown. But in Ghana, the birthday party isn’t the focus of the day. Instead, children apparently wake up to a special treat called an “oto” that’s made from sweet potato and eggs. The lesson we can draw from this – build the expectation around a (morning) meal or special treat to begin the day. You may even want to build it around a trip to a special place that the child loves.

Incorporate generosity

Most birthday parties are about receiving (presents, cake, accolades for being a year older). But what if you incorporated giving into the birthday party? In India, on their birthday, the child wears colourful clothing to school and passes out chocolate to his or her classmates. Now how cool is that? Instead of making a birthday a focus of consumption, it’s flipped on its head and becomes an event marked by generosity. If you want to see the power of generosity, read more about it in this great Potentiality post by Yassaman Nouri.

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