The birthday party is in crisis — and it's not getting better anytime soon.
As children, birthday parties were simple, elegant affairs. Your parents fed you supermarket cake on beautifully branded, plastic tablecloths and prayed that you didn't ruin the whole event by spontaneously crying or vomiting.
But millennials took those simple pleasures for granted, and now, many parties have evolved into ravenous emotional beasts: month-long, highly intricate ceremonies that eat up all your your savings and Facebook notifications. Absence is not an option. Sickness is not an excuse. The rise of the birthdayzilla has transformed birthday parties from simple one-offs to totalitarian birthday months, and everyone must comply.
Not all holy birthdays look the same, but their DNA is almost identical. For me, invitations start off breezily, calmly. Often, they come in the form of a casual Facebook invite for beers. Or a last minute text for brunch — nbd if you can't make it! A 'LOL' is added to let you know that they're cool — a DGAF kind of person.
Yet read between the lines, or actually read that group email, and you'll notice some surreptitious follow-up clauses. The birthday beers are for everyone in Tier III of friendship, the most inclusive (as as well as my personal favorite) category. More intimate Tier II friends are required to attend to the birthday beers as well as the birthday dinner, held in a discreet location approximately 9,000 miles away from your house, only accessible by an intermittently functioning local bus. Quirky costumes and period-specific Hamilton hats are recommended, and please bring your wallets: this restaurant only accepts loose change.
Read even closer, check that cc: line, and you may even discover that you're a Tier I friend. I am proud to say I've been called a Tier I friend by some, though the responsibilities are grueling. Tier I friends aren't just required to attend all events — including the all-you-can-mimosa spa weekend for 100 of her closest girlfriends, ($100 for the Sephora goody bag!)—but be involved in the production capacity as well. This could mean anything from planning some questionably "hilarious" penis-inspired crafts, to putting together a yearbook of their greatest G-chat quotes, 1989-present.
Attendance and enthusiasm is required for all events. Non-compliance may result in ex-communication.
This may seem like hyperbole, but the phenomenon is grounded in real evidence. I reached out to some friends to get their sad tales of birthday obligation.
Here's just a sampling:
"She made me go to birthday pre-dinner drinks, birthday dinner, birthday post-dinner drinks, birthday club, birthday hotel. That was preceded by a series of birthday preliminary events, including a birthday floppy hat party in the park. It was not pretty." - "Ben" D.
"I received over 200 emails about the same birthday dinner," Megan H.
"He forced me to go to a cupcake tour," "Emily" S.
While not everyone feels the same, accurate way about cupcake tours (they are terrible), the pattern is clear: birthday parties/holy birthday months resemble their increasingly controversial cousin, weddings. The cost for attending a holy birthday month can be prohibitive, as is the cost for noncompliance. Forget to RSVP? Forget to show up? Good luck.
"I told her I was "too sick" to go to her party (I had the flu) and she told me "I didn't care enough," Megan H. told me.
There have been points in my life—points where I've been asked to travel over three hours to go to a crowded party at midnight in below-freezing temperatures where I know there'll be no stools, forget chairs—where I've seriously considered dropping the friendship, in the interest of transportation time.
It isn't just the logistics that scare me, however. It's the expectation that I need to go financially above-and-beyond for a fellow friend not because because they're in dire straights, but to satisfy a normative ritual. And an expensive one.
But attendance is only one small part of the modern birthday ritual.
Holy birthday months don't exist without recording them, on each and every platform, using each and every filter on social media. The event becomes secondary to its record.
Two years ago, I went to a birthday party as part of a holy birthday month. This wasn't the Tier I brunch portion where we ate New York's best legendary mini-cupcakes (ugh, were they mini). This was a a Tier III party – typically the safest of all parties – and someone had brought a Whole Foods cake (-3 points for failing to make it personalized, +2 for the brand)
But the birthdayzilla, like so many birthdayzillas before her, nearly blew off her face by taking a selfie of herself blowing out fire. She then proceeded to take a picture of her partially singed face and put it on Snapchat, because that's just what birthdayzillas – and burn victims? — do.
None of this is to say that birthday months shouldn’t exist, or that we shouldn't celebrate our friends or, you know, life.
But instead of forcing our loved ones to travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to eat stale Doritos crumbs at the bottom of a plastic bowl, or making them wear quirky sombreros and thematic t-shirts and dance to Journey on crumbling bar tables, or requiring them to read email after email, FB invite after FB invite, group text after group text, we celebrate birthdays the way nature always intended for them to be celebrated: among friends, with coupons, for one glorious day only.
Offer never expires.