“No Travel” Tales #5: The Birthday

The once-yearly celebration isn’t quite as exciting as pre-lockdown days, victim to social distancing guidelines and the perpetual unawareness of time. At first, the notion of an isolation birthday seems rather gloomy as you metamorphose from a social butterfly into a lone wolf. Yet there’s a lot to be said for this anniversary, a welcome contrast to the preceding weeks of monotony – as long as you don’t wake up with birthday fever.

With supplies not readily available, the gifting process instead relies on DIY and allusions to a rather more famous nativity. Packages have a festive common ground, wrapped in leftover Christmas paper and regifted bottle bags that conveniently lack a label. Cards, too, feature winter characters – puffins in knitted woollen jumpers, skiing figurines and watercolours of snow-dusted holly – while your weak eyesight now appreciates Moonpig’s extremely large font.

Homemade masterpieces add nostalgia, tacked with pictures of a previous life of travelling, messy pub crawls and gestures of physical affection. Even the arts and crafts-averse parents get creative, battling with the printer’s low ink warnings, fuzzy photography and ancient PVA glue. 

While physical parties are a no-go, the virtual soirée is far less stressful (and cheaper) than the real deal. Guests really do have to BYOB, the dress code is finally optional, and you won’t be faced with surge pricing on taxi rides home. Houseparty might trademark itself on large shindigs but thankfully it’s not got the messy connotations. Your home will be free from broken beer bottles, neighbourly complaints, and sticky floors from spillages – though I’ll admit that there have been a fair few near-misses with wine on the laptop. 

Party games also need reinventing now that the “Post-It on the forehead” favourite is cheater-friendly on video. A picture round ensues in which you guess the missing people, followed by a karaoke challenge to sing Happy Birthday in another tune – trust me, it’s harder than it sounds. Most of us revert to the classic Stevie Wonder version, transitioning to the 50 Cent club anthem as the night, and drinks, progress. 

Unfortunately, isolation doesn’t provide a free pass on the hangover-front nor does it cure hangxiety, as your friends unearth your Facebook statuses from 2007 – turns out the world wasn’t fascinated by that time you were “going to watch Ugly Betty!!!”, though it’s nice to know you were polite then too, signing it off with an abundance of kisses.

The main benefit is that you’re no longer the host, instead able to enjoy yourself without having to generate small talk introductions between different friendship groups. Your mates take the lead, organising a virtual gathering with an invitation in the form of a meeting ID, numbered password and website link. While at first it looks like you’ve been stood up – the worry of no-shows tingling down your spine – candles swiftly flicker into the frame, along with an unsynchronised rendition of Happy Birthday thanks to dodgy wifi. 

Some birthday zooms will involve technical difficulties, such as when your dad mistakes your sister for a gatecrasher and performs his bouncer duties, blocking her from attending. Mum also plays a key role, posting an aubergine emoji on the group WhatsApp to alert us that the presumed hacker might offend us. Such connection issues are comforting rather than disparaging in the age of lockdown, a digital extension of a family’s dysfunctional qualities. 

Some things never change. Lockdown hasn’t put a stop to the fear of ageing, for instance, but it seems that there’s a consensus for erasing 2020 once lockdown lifts. Let’s hope the wrinkle-inducing toll of “staying alert” doesn’t give us away.

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