Birthdays are kind of a big deal in my house. Usually we celebrate by having a bunch of friends over, sharing great food and wine, and carousing into the wee hours.

© Gilbert Mercier / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But when the birthday of my husband, Don, rolled around this year, we were in lockdown like everyone else—and creativity was needed. So, I posted love poems around the house the night before, baked his mother’s famous chocolate cake, and organized a surprise Zoom birthday ritual with a few close friends holding candles and sending heartfelt wishes to him.

Why go to all the trouble? As with weddings and other rituals, birthday parties are bigger than one person. They bring friends and family together, strengthening the ties that make up our society. They remind us that we are not alone in the face of our own mortality. They’re a great excuse to eat cake.

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We’re all going to celebrate a birthday (or possibly two or three) under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Even if those ease, we may not be ready to risk big social gatherings. Though some may not mind having birthdays pass unnoticed—never liked birthdays, never will—research suggests that they can be a special opportunity to nourish positive emotions and fortify our relationships.

Why birthdays matter

In one study in the U.K., researchers asked people to describe their birthday celebrations and how the festivities affected them at two points in time.

They came to some interesting conclusions: The rituals associated with birthdays—like giving cards and presents, or sharing cake or meals—imbue them with importance and significance. They provide a sense of “collective continuity”—meaning, a sense that we are all going through life together—that helps us feel less focused on our individual aging.

Birthday celebrations also make us feel loved, which can be a nice way to increase our mental health—especially during stressful times. And birthdays may be particularly important to children, helping them to understand the concept of aging while raising their self-esteem and cementing their feeling of belonging in their families.

Birthdays (and other temporal markers) can also be times to reassess our lives. Research suggests that birthdays help motivate people to make important changes—like exercising more or starting a healthier diet—and to more deliberately pursue life goals. Birthdays apparently help us to put our “old self” behind us in favor of a future, evolving self, which aids us in moving forward on our life path.

Of course, birthdays often give us the chance to participate in shared rituals: emotional group gatherings that can help us transcend the current moment and increase our connection to others. Research shows that shared rituals make us feel a part of a larger social identity, suggesting that losing those rituals can be hard on us.

So, what can we do to fete people at this time and hold on to those benefits? Here are some guidelines to follow.

Make it meaningful and memorable

Birthdays are a chance to let people know that they are special to you. That’s why I wanted Don’s friends to express their appreciations for his birthday. It imbued the otherwise mundane Zoom social hour with more meaning and emotional resonance.

Amber's friends joined in a birthday car parade.

Amber M. of Novato, California, didn’t expect to do much for her 31st birthday, which fell just two weeks into lockdown. But her sister, daughter, and niece created a birthday car parade, with friends driving through her neighborhood in cars festooned with signs and balloons, blaring their radios or hanging out of their sunroofs to serenade her while she watched from her front yard. Some tossed her thoughtful gifts, like potting soil and toilet paper, which were hard to come by in the early days of the lockdown.

“It was one of the most delightful things that ever happened to me in my life,” says Amber. “It just made me feel so joyful.”

Afterward, Amber was surprised to find out that this display of love also had an impact on her neighbors. Many of them wanted to get to know her and her husband better, figuring that anyone who brought out that much enthusiasm for a birthday must be nice and worth becoming closer to.

Amber was able to celebrate while still saying safe and distanced.

“I became a little famous in the neighborhood,” says Amber. “It was really sweet.”

The parade was filmed and posted on Facebook, which meant she could watch it in the months that followed whenever she felt the pandemic bringing her down.

“Every time I’m starting to feel bad about not being able to see friends and do the things I want, I just watch this and it lifts my spirit,” says Amber.

Include community

Birthdays are first and foremost a chance to let people know that they are part of a community of caring people, which is what made Amber’s party so special. Since we feel most connected when we are in each other’s presence, it’s a good idea to have people actually gather in person—even if they need to remain physically distant.

Seventeen-year-old An-lin S. of Flemington, New Jersey, organized a driveway party that involved friends gathering at the birthday girl’s house and hanging out together to chat, gossip, and share cake. Though the girls stood six feet apart and wore gloves and masks much of the time, being together let the celebrant know she mattered.
“As humans, we need to be together,” says An-lin. “Since this was the first time that everyone was out of their house and socializing, it made it special.”

Though 20-year-old Aidan G. of Kensington, California, was home from college because of COVID, his girlfriend put together a video of college friends wishing him a happy birthday and sharing appreciations, which really touched him. Later, his mom invited six local friends to come by the house and hang out on the front lawn, sit around a bonfire, and make s’mores.

“My birthday was surprisingly nice, better than I expected, because I felt connected with people, even though everyone had to be socially distanced,” says Aidan. “I was reminded people cared about me.”

Add surprises

Surprises can make people feel a burst of energy and give them a sense of vitality that might be particularly helpful during this time. So, for her son’s 14th birthday, Anne S. of Berkeley, California, invited his friends, family, and some teachers to send in a video clip of themselves wishing him a happy birthday. She also asked her oldest daughter to put it together in a fun slideshow with music to share with him on his actual birthday.

“It was a surprise for him and he loved that,” says Anne.

Angela J. of Los Angeles, California, attended a surprise Zoom birthday for an aunt living in Philadelphia who was turning 90. More than 80 family members and friends from all around the country joined the call, offering congratulations and appreciations for her aunt. One cousin even created a special online presentation for the call that included live and recorded music, as well as dance performances and poetry.

“It was truly a wonderful experience,” says Angela.

Of course, the most important thing in creating any celebration is knowing the birthday recipient’s likes and dislikes—and what matters most to them. It might take a little more organizing effort during lockdown to do something that will resonate with the celebrant and still keep everyone safe from harm.

Even so, it makes sense to hold on to festivities like these during COVID. Losing social rituals can be harmful to our well-being, making us feel less connected to others and less united in purpose. In contrast, continuing with important rituals, like birthday celebrations, can build positive feelings, social ties, and a sense of control over our lives that we need during this stressful, uncertain time.

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