I love birthdays. Maybe it’s partly because I’m a twin, so my parents always wanted to make sure that each of us felt adequately celebrated. For whatever reason, they’ve always been a big deal – your special day in the whole year, where you get to choose what’s for dinner and everyone is extra nice to you. So of course I’ve had even more fun now that I have kids of my own to celebrate. I love making crazy cakes and experimenting with fun party themes; and bring on the singing! In our family, the traditional one verse birthday song was nowhere near celebratory enough – we added to it until it felt sufficiently festive, so ours goes on for a good five minutes.
But I’ll never forget my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday, the first we celebrated after moving out of the People’s Republic ofCambridge,Massachusettsand up to the suburbanNorthShore. The evening after the party, we looked around; instead of the educational, wooden Melissa and Doug puzzles and toys of the past, this year we were somehow surrounded by a mountain of pink princess plastic in varying shapes and forms. My husband and I took one look and said, “never again.” Our new tradition of charity birthday parties was born.
We already knew about donation gifts, which some people in our family give at Christmas. My two daughters always look forward to seeing what animals their aunt and uncle have donated in their names through Heifer, International. Lest we appear scroogie, even if we don’t have big gifts
under the tree, we always have stocking stuffer gifts – maybe even tickets to a fun event. So when I suggested to my oldest that her family gets her plenty of birthday gifts, and wouldn’t it be fun to pick a charity to have her friends donate toward for her birthday, she jumped at the chance. The first time, she picked Heifer, too. So we had a farm animal theme, her friends watched Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, and we even had live baby chicks for them to hold and pet at the party. Then we drove the chicks out to their new home at Heifer’s Overlook Farm, where the girls got to see all the animals as well as choose how to allocate all the birthday donations. All in all, she and her friends were pretty proud to raise over $200 to help raise communities out of hunger and poverty, and they each took home some fun Heifer booklets and stickers to help them understand what they’d helped to do.
Although the children’s friends seem to enjoy these donation parties, they’ve had a decidedly mixed reception among the adults. Some parents have reacted with near reverence to the idea of less clutter and ‘junk,’ and some love the idea of the kids doing something meaningful. Others, however, seem to think it somewhere between mildly bizarre to downright cruel.
What I think these latter parents miss is the sense of agency, empowerment, and satisfaction the girls get when they feel like they are able to make a difference in the world.Caroline Kline’s
recent blog entryof November 22, 2011 reminded me of these kinds of choices we make in how we run our homes. She correctly points out how our homes have been targeted to become consumption sinks, rather than communal loci of creative idea sharing and production of useful goods. Where do we really find deep fulfillment in life? And how do we want to celebrate a person’s birth and life? Our choice to give as well as receive not only offers opportunities for children to engage in their own communities with issues of social and ecological justice and transformation; it also reclaims the celebration of them as a person, pointing to all the wonder that they are and all the promise of whom they will become.
In a world choking on consumption, we need more opportunities for this kind of engagement. Consumer culture has desperately tried to monopolize all of our holidays and holy days; but we can experience these celebrations of birth, life, community and the sacred more deeply through celebrating and fostering the true riches of our relationships with one another and the blessed Earth. Many more years to us!
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee is a doctoral student in Environmental Ethics at Boston University School of Theology, studying the engagement of congregations with the local food movement. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology fromHarvardUniversity, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.