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Celebrating milestones

In our family, birthday season lasts from August to November and, if we count kids and adults alike, we’re packing six birthdays into a few short months (my efforts to conceive at least one spring baby obviously were futile). This means we celebrate someone’s birthday every few weeks. With so many birthdays clustered together, it can feel, frankly, overwhelming.

In years past, there were parties with homemade play dough favors, themed birthday cakes, and complicated obstacle courses and crafts. That was when there were fewer children, a younger me, a less hectic life. But such a pace can’t be maintained forever, and I admit I felt relieved when we moved to Japan, where birthday party culture doesn’t really exist and we were able to move on to a simpler, more intimate routine – a small homemade cake, a few gifts, a quiet family dinner. I prided myself on having chosen the less stressful path for our family.

As my fourth (and last) child’s first birthday approached, though, I had this nagging feeling that perhaps we really ought to give her a Korean first birthday party.

All three of our other children’s first birthdays were celebrated with a dol, the traditional ceremony that celebrates a Korean baby’s first year of life. For Koreans (I’m Korean-American), the first birthday is considered one of the most important birthdays in a person’s life. But we were near our relatives then, who swooped in and took care of everything – the elaborate, colorful Korean dress, the piles of rice cakes, the low table decorated with the various items which, according to tradition, would represent all the possibilities for the birthday baby’s future life. This time, I found it utterly daunting to think of trying to do this by myself, so far from the extended family I missed so. And so I told myself that baby Anna wouldn’t really notice if we skipped it.

But there’s something to be said for celebrating certain, important milestones, isn’t there? For taking a bit of time out of a demand-filled life to pause, and mark the passage from one stage to another. Not just for myself (it felt like a celebration, as well as a bittersweet acknowledgment that my life as the mother of an infant was over), not just for Anna either (celebrating the only first birthday she’d ever have), but for our other children, too, so they could see that taking time and care to celebrate a milestone is a joyful thing for a family to do together.

So at the last minute, we decided to call a few friends. The kids and I made tissue paper flowers and autumn leaf garlands and lavishly decorated the low table with fruit and rice cakes, symbols of abundance. People gathered round, cameras snapped, and my girl hesitated just for a moment, then chose the item which represented longevity. Everyone clapped and cheered.

Aftewards, there were dishes to wash, a mess to clean up, tired, overexcited children to bathe and put to bed. But in the end, the day was about more than just a birthday party. As I watched my daughter at her little throne, I remembered my other little ones at the same age, in front of a similar, hope-laden table, and marveled at how impossibly big they’d now become, how far we’d all come on our family journey. I was grateful, despite my initial reluctance, for a celebration which got me to stop hustling and bustling for just one afternoon, a celebration which wove so many threads of my life together in a beautiful tableau: family, memory, tradition, love, and nostalgia.

How do you celebrate special birthdays in your family? What other milestones are important to you and how do you celebrate them?

Christine Gross-Loh is a writer and crafter who has written feature articles for Mothering. Her book, The Diaper-Free Baby (HarperCollins 2006), is a how-to guide on elimination communication, and her craft book and kit on origami suncatchers will be out in February, 2011.

Visit her blog, where she writes on natural parenting, family creativity, and raising global kids.

About Christine Gross-Loh


Comments (19)

This is just lovely. First of all, Anna is just cherubic in her beauty. I love the idea of this tradition. I always felt first birthdays were very special for my kids. I'm glad you were able to celebrate it in a way that had meaning for your family! .-= NoPotCoooking´s last blog ..Salmon with Mustard Sauce =-.
I love the idea of celebrating milestones like this, as well as traditional holidays when one lives in another country. When my elder daughter turned "sweet 16," in France, I gave her a bouquet of roses. I'm glad your daughter had her first b-day celebrated this way and love those paper flowers! .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..PB Boulangerie-Bistro- Bring on the Stars! =-.
We celebrate our daughter's birthday in what ever way suits her. We celebrate our own usually with the gift of self indulgence. My husband will usually go skiing or something and I might take a day off from being a mom on mine. I think it's important to honor family tradition, if possible. It gives children a special feeling. .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..Some Thoughts on the Simple Life =-.
Because my sister and I were born 2 years, 2 days, apart, I pretty much NEVER had my own birthday party ... except when I turned 16 and when I turned 21. We always got the same thing (as a gift) in different colors.
I like the fluidity of being able to decide from year to year how one will celebrate. This is a cool column that reminds us that there are many different traditions that can change--with the person--over time. .-= Merr´s last blog ..Fear not- A meditation =-.
lovely celebration -- I like your point that it shows brothers and sisters about the importance of taking time and care to celebrate with someone, too. .-= Kerry´s last blog ..autumn music- preparation and presence =-.
Isn't it wonderful to have and maintain special family traditions? Tiresome, sometimes, but I'm always glad when I do! .-= Kris Bordessa´s last blog ..Kahumoku Ohana Hawaiian Music and Lifestyle Workshop =-.
That's such a beautiful picture that it makes we want to have a party. But as someone who raised three boys, I can't help focusing on the white sofa. Brave!!
My girls both have October birthdays, which gets awkward with the holidays so soon after that. It was an embarrassment of riches and then a long dry spell so we started celebrating half birthdays. It became a tradition and was really fun!
How gorgeous is your girl -- and you -- for choosing such a lovely celebration? Sometimes exhaustion can be an impediment to marking a milestone but I'm bet you glad you did this for your daughter. I think as I get older I value taking time to acknowledge these milestones. We celebrate my boy's half birthday too, just a little gesture, like a special dessert or a new book, or a foot massage. He loves the extra attention -- and why not? -- he's almost as tall as me and well on his way to independence. How did that happen?
What a beautiful sentiment, Christine. I really enjoyed reading this. I love the fact that you decided to make it more traditional and then it became so festive and actually a nice time away for you, even though you were very much present. What a cutie, too! She'll never be one again, so yes, why not make it special?
What a beautiful post, Christine. There's a reason and a meaning behind each tradition that goes beyond the festive moment - as you point out. Happy 1 year Anna!
Sarah, my husband and I celebrate half-birthdays too, because they happen to fall within a few days of each other's birthdays! A fun bonus tradition... And what a beautiful, meaningful way to celebrate a first birthday. Thanks for illuminating it for us! .-= Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last blog ..GUEST POST- Sicilian Comfort Gravy =-.
What a lovely photograph, and what an amazing way to celebrate a first birthday, Christine. Okay, so, I have to admit that I felt a twinge of ... jealousy? sadness? regret? reading this post. Leone--our last baby and 4th--turned one recently and after a huge amount of deliberation I decided NOT to have a party for her. I just didn't have the energy (or, sadly, the budget.) We did have a very nice family party for her. Since there are 6 of us our family is enough to make a party. But I feel sorry, now, that we didn't do something more for such an important milestone... (And I was moved to tears to know that your baby chose the food that represents longevity. May Anna have a sweet, long, and wonderful life.) .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Miracles All Around Us =-.
What an angel! And those colorful tissue paper flowers are gorgeous. Yes, milestones rock. .-= Jane Boursaw´s last blog ..What’s Up With Cowboys &amp Aliens =-.
First of all, my heart almost exploded when I saw that photo at the bottom of your post. She is so gorgeous, and so adorable! Second, I love that your decided to carry on this family tradition. I'm 30 and I still feel heartbroken if my mother doesn't put up a Christmas tree one year, or suggests we forego making the pizzarustica at Easter. There's something about those family traditions that's just... special, and makes me feel more closely connected to my history. .-= Steph Auteri´s last blog ..Reason to Write- It Knocks Celebrities Off Their Pedestal =-.
This brought a tear to my eye, Christine! Our little one just hit the four-month and I'm realizing how quickly this time will pass. I'm so glad you chose to hold the party after all.
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What a wonderful post and celebration. I also love the photos. Celebrations are oh, so important. Jeanine
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