Your children need your presence more than your presents. ~Jesse Jackson
Today, my older son turned 17 and this year, as he has for the past several years, has chosen a minimalistic birthday: a gift of cash, dinner with our family, and his favorite chocolate cake from Kathy’s Creative Cakes in San Mateo.
The minimalistic birthday is a nice change over years past. When my son was young, my husband and I created “The Birthday Bus Driver”: on the eve of his birthday, after our son had gone to sleep, my husband would sneak in and decorate his room with streamers, three “Happy Birthday” signs and a “Happy Birthday” letter banner. In the morning, my son would wake up in wonder and delight in his decorated room and with a few gifts left by The Birthday Bus Driver.
My son remembers those days and tells me it was like Christmas in July. When he was younger, he used to tell me that his friends had never heard of the Birthday Bus Driver and questioned whether he really existed. I used to smile and shrug my shoulders. I loved the festive look in his room, reminding him that it was his special day.
In his early years, we hosted birthday parties for him at various places that cater to birthday parties for kids – The Junior Gym, The Party Playhouse, Safari Run, Pump It Up and at the movies as well as family parties and sleepovers at our home.
I tried to be mindful about party favors: boxes of Crayola crayons and Animal crackers for the first few years, until I had the bright idea of a gift certificate for a scoop of ice cream from Preston’s Candies and Ice Cream. And while his birthday was celebrated with laughter and fun, these celebrations also brought guests laden with gifts.
Each year when people RSVP’d for the party, they would ask me what my son wanted for his birthday; “the gift of your presence” I would say, but guests would still come to the party bearing presents wrapped in bright paper: Legos, books, and games.
While everyone enjoyed the party, I would dread the “after-party”, the part where my son would sit down and open gift after gift. I was overwhelmed at the stack of gifts, the pile of wrapping paper, and the list of people to whom he would have to write thank-you notes.
When my son turned ten, we hosted a small sleepover at our home, with “No gifts please” clearly on the invitation.
At first, I thought my son would be disappointed, but in the end, he said it was the best birthday ever: he and his friends camped out on the lawn in the backyard, they made marshmallow shooters out of PVC pipe and shot miniature marshmallows all over the yard. They watched a movie and then stayed up late into the night laughing and talking, their silhouettes outlined against the tent, the steady beam of a flashlight shining brightly.
The following year, and the years after, my son told me he liked being at home and that he wanted to keep it simple. He preferred having a few friends over for dinner and cake afterward; birthdays were about being with family and friends, he told me.
The Birthday Bus Driver hasn’t visited our house in a few years and as I climbed the stairs and faced his bedroom this morning, I felt a little sad. Yesterday he had reminded me that he had only one more year of childhood left and then he would be a legal adult. As he slept, I quietly hung the simple “Happy Birthday” letter sign over his door. I wanted him to feel special, the last full year of childhood before he turns 18.
Seeing him grow and mature is bittersweet; the maturity is apparent, he has learned that the best celebrations are not about the presents, but about the gift of presence and being with those you love: the best gift of all.