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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Enjoying birthdays: a reflection on getting older but not losing enthusiasm

When it comes to birthdays, people usually fall into one of two categories: apathetic and not really considering it to be a big deal, or incredibly enthusiastic to the point of being obnoxious. For some reason, even though I am often a person who shies away from the spotlight and prefers the corner of a room to the center of the party, I’ve always fallen in the latter category. I never had a big Sweet 16 or a car waiting in the driveway for me, but from first grade to my senior year of high school, I always had some sort of birthday party and really put my heart into making it a fun time — not just for myself, but for my friends.

That changed when I came to college. I couldn’t exactly throw a party in my tiny dorm room when I turned 18 my freshman year, nor did I have enough friends to have anything more than a really small get-together. I still got really excited for my birthday, though — even though I knew it wouldn’t come with a big celebration. But when I saw how my friends reacted to their own birthdays, I started feeling ashamed for always making a big deal about mine, something that was starting to seem self-centered and childish.

I couldn’t pinpoint why I make a big deal out of my birthday. I am not a showy person. It’s not that I crave gifts (they don’t hurt, of course) or big parties. There was a time I thought it might be because of the year my seventh-grade friends forgot, but now I realize that story was an excuse. I started attributing the excitement of my birthday to my own usually childish behavior and my enthusiasm for other big events. After all, I get excited for holidays and my friends’ birthdays, too. Every time I get a new calendar or planner, I make sure to mark down my close friends’ birthdays even though I know them off the top of my head.

I was discussing this the other day, just off-handedly because the subject of birthdays came up. My birthday was especially important to me, I realized, because it usually fell on the week of Thanksgiving. In my family, Thanksgiving is a big deal. We don’t have a lot of family in the country, but we do have very close family friends and high-school and college friends of my parents, and those friends are basically like extended family. We all used to live in the same state, but after 2000, we dispersed across the country.

On Thanksgiving, though, everyone made that long trek to Florida. This is especially notable because everyone from my parents’ generation was an immigrant and was just incredibly passionate about celebrating this very American holiday. We’d all come together, and because my birthday would usually be a few days later, my mom would make sure to set aside a pumpkin pie. Then, we would have a little birthday celebration for me.

When I think about my birthday, I think about that coming together and experiencing that love and family feeling we don’t get on any other holiday. Since coming to college, that’s kind of been lost. It’s a mix of things: the fact that I’m older, so birthdays aren’t considered a big deal; the fact that the whole process of coming home for Thanksgiving is time-consuming and stressful; and the fact that our family friends now have little children who take up more of the attention and the space.

I shouldn’t be upset — after all, the reason we gather in the first place is Thanksgiving, not my birthday — but part of me feels a little wistful and nostalgic for those times. I can’t help but feel that same excitement for my birthday to come around.

But I know why birthdays are such a big deal to me — not just mine, but all my friends’ as well: Because there’s this intrinsic feeling of love and belonging and togetherness that my birthday had always held for me, a deep-set feeling that only came once a year. In my mind, everyone’s birthdays should make them feel as loved and as cared for as my childhood birthdays did.

Petrana Radulovic is a UF English and computer science major. Her columns appear on Thursdays.

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