The Beatles sang, “You say it’s your birthday/It’s my birthday, too…” in 1968, but throughout the boomer years, all birthdays were not created equal. Though there were differences among how boomers celebrated, the differences between then and now are much more pronounced.
Boomer birthdays were, in a phrase, smaller, toned-down affairs. The common denominators were probably cake and ice cream. Depending on the family, there might be balloons and party hats — or at least a hat to humiliate the birthday person. Gifts varied as well; for some, a birthday gift was on par with that of a Christmas gift, so the same thought and monetary value was invested into it. For others, like Mister Boomer’s family, birthday gifts were on a second tier behind Christmas. Still others used the occasion to offer novelty and prank gifts.
At Mister Boomer’s house, birthdays were celebrated as a family. In the early years, grandparents and nearby aunts and uncles might be invited. After dinner, a cake was brought to the table and candles affixed in the usual fashion. Some boomer moms made birthday cakes either from a box mix or from scratch. Mister B’s mom preferred to pick one up at the supermarket or local bakery chain. When the candles were lit, those assembled sang Happy Birthday, the same traditional song that Marilyn Monroe sang to President John Kennedy in 1962. Then the ritual demanded that the birthday person “make a wish” and blow out the candles.
Ice cream was removed from the freezer and dished out to accompany the cake. Mister Boomer favored the three-flavored neapolitan, so he could have a taste of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. His sister preferred chocolate only, while his brother never gave it much attention, so vanilla was often chosen by Mister B’s mom for Brother Boomer’s birthdays.
Since birthdays were special occasions, soda pop was often the drink of choice with the cake and ice cream. During dinner, milk was the required beverage, so soda pop served as a treat in the dessert course. Family gifts followed, which were small trinkets, though Mister B’s sister often received a Barbie outfit or two. Teen years saw the exchange of 45 RPM records between siblings, or possibly a model car kit, Mad or Sick magazine for Mister B. Any extended family present might offer a card that contained a dollar.
Mister B’s sister did have a few birthday parties with some neighborhood kids in attendance, but parties at the Boomer household were few and far between. Mister B recalls being invited to only one birthday party in his elementary school years; a third-grade classmate invited the entire class. Both boys and girls were present, dressed appropriately as dictated by the social mores of the era; girls wore dresses and boys wore khakis or dress pants and dress shirts.
After a lunch of hot dogs and potato chips, innocuous games such as Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs were played. Then the cake ceremony was held and gifts were given to the birthday boy. Mister Boomer recalls giving a dollar to a fellow student along with three others; the pooled money was used to purchase a toy as their gift. When the party festivities were completed, a small bag was given to each kid as a parting gift, inside there was a piece of candy and a toy on the order of a Cracker Jack prize. Mister Boomer got a ride with a classmate, along with four others; his classmate’s father drove them home. This one party had been the most extravagant affair he had ever attended in his young years.
Today’s kids are treated to that type of party, multiplied. In Mister Boomer’s research he asked co-workers and parents he knows what it is like for their kids attending birthday parties. The first difference that was immediately voiced was that the majority are located at venues other than the birthday child’s home. Bowling centers, pizza restaurants, pottery studios, go-kart race tracks, video arcades, rock climbing facilities, laser tag centers, and more, all host birthday parties. In many cases attendees are expected to pay their own way, which can potentially reach serious money. On top of that, gifts are expected, often in the $20 to $50 range. Due to cost and space limitations, most parties are limited to 12 or fewer participants, so schoolyard pecking orders often dictate the number of parties to which a kid will be invited, though parents prefer the number be kept to a minimum. Most venues either toss in cake and sometimes ice cream, though some require the parents to BYOBC — bring your own birthday cake. Along with a lunch and cake, kids are expected to receive some favors in return, which often includes candy and a small toy.
There may be some similarities, but unlike the boomer era, birthdays aren’t centered around family any more. And parents now need to be ready with an open wallet, whether they are hosting the birthday party, or ushering their child to one.
What were your birthday parties like, boomers?