When I turned 41, I finally threw the birthday party I wanted.
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My 41st birthday was rapidly approaching and I was torn. I didn’t want to throw a big dinner or spend money at a bar. I wanted a simple and cozy gathering with ladies I felt easy around. I wanted to play Christmas carols and make ornaments and decorate my tree. There was just one problem: I was afraid to ask for what I wanted.
My friends insisted that it was my birthday, that I should do as I pleased. They shared video after video of ornament ideas—elaborate snowflakes and snow globes and garlands. I loved the videos but recoiled at the idea of foisting crafts on my friends, at making the event about me.
“OK, you’re stressing about paper snowflakes,” my friends said.
“I’m NOT stressed!” I insisted, indignant.
I was stressed. I had never thrown the birthday party I wanted. As a rule, I avoided throwing birthday parties at all, approaching the day with a sense of trepidation. What if I threw a party and no one came? What if people came and didn’t have fun? Asking for people to show up for me felt like asking for disappointment when they didn’t.
For years, I let other people plan my parties. On my 38th birthday in Nairobi, my party turned into a seated dinner for 50. A pavilion mushroomed in my back garden: a white tent and wait staff, a long satin table and chairs with gold tulle bows. I remember the days-long preparation, picking place settings, arranging armfuls of red and yellow roses. I remember a blur of small talk and topping up drinks, the flash storm that flooded the tent and sent everyone scurrying inside to eat on my living room floor.
I no longer remember who came to my 38th birthday. Of the 50 people who filled my home and ate my food and toasted to my health, only a handful stayed in touch when I left my life in Kenya a few weeks later. The image that stays with me from that night is my carefully arranged roses, forlorn in the rain. The party was never really about me; it was about the party.
So what kind of birthday party did I want? An intimate one, so I could relax instead of host. One in the morning, when I am at my freshest, with coffee and spiced cider instead of wine. I wanted leisurely time to cook while singing to Mariah Carey, slowly filling my house with the smell of bubbling apples and cinnamon.
Most of all, I wanted to decorate my Christmas tree, a seven-foot fir that I had carried up four flights of stairs and set up on my own. Decorating the tree was a cherished ritual from childhood, an unshakable tradition in my secular home, the twinkle of lights and smell of pine marking the end of the old and the turn of the new. Each Christmas, my mom would add a new ornament that memorialized the year and mark it with the date. I carried on this tradition of stringing my tree with memories, greeting the ornaments like old friends.
But when I left Kenya overnight with a single suitcase in 2020, I left behind a lifetime of ornaments, which was both small in the scheme of things and achingly irreplaceable. My Christmas tree was yet another place I had no choice but to begin again. My mother, who can’t abide a bare tree, sent me my childhood keepsakes from hers: the needlepoint rocking horse she hung over my ventilator in the NICU, the red popsicle stick sled I made when I was six, the school bus I rode when I was 10.
I loved them—and I wanted to make a new generation of ornaments, once created with friends, to mark my year of rebirth. So I held my breath and invited a dozen ladies to a birthday brunch and tree-decorating party. I made a luxurious Julia Child quiche and chai-spiced monkey bread with cardamom and cloves. Then I bought a pack of paper penguins and hoped for the best.
Friends showed up from all eras of my life: friends from my long-hair college days and new friends from plant swaps, friends I met in Burundi and Columbia and friends I met planting sunflowers in my front yard. We gathered around my dining room table and burned our fingers on the sticky caramel pastry, too delicious to let cool. We traded stories and glue sticks, giving our penguins jaunty hats and scarves and polka-dot sweaters. When our penguins were complete, we signed them and hung them proudly on the tree.
“Every party should have crafts and end at 2 p.m.,” one friend said.
“That was way more my speed than staying out late at a bar,” another said.
“That was fun, I love meeting new people,” said a third.
When my friends filed out, I curled up on my couch and beamed at my new ornaments, cozy and content. Friends did come, and they did have fun. Eight people is the perfect number to sit around a single table, and have a single conversation. Eating monkey bread and chatting over crafts is the perfect way to spend a morning. It wasn’t selfish to design a party I wanted; it was authentic. The more I tap into my own joy, the more I share it with others.
How old do we have to be before we let go of what we “should” do, and just lean in to what delights us? Why bother with convention when we can make paper penguins? Now when I unwrap my ornaments and string my tree with memories, I’ll remember 2022 as the year that I finally threw the birthday party I wanted.
One of the unexpected joys of starting over has been hearing from others on similar journeys. If something resonates with you, I’d love for you to leave a comment, drop me an email or share a post with a friend!
Liz is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. She’s spent her career finding the right words for others and now she’s finding her own.
Happy belated, Liz. What a lovely, Christmas-y way to ring in a new year of life.
My kind of party! I had a student worker that brought in money bread every occasion of celebration and I lost touch with her. Moving hardened a lot for me. I've just a single tin of ornaments. But you inspire me how to collect more again. I once had a snowman making gathering. Wooden blocks and baby socks. The ladies at work kept talking about it every year. Illl be looking up your money bread idea! Hohoho!