Happy Birthday During The Pandemic – Dad didn’t want a party – he didn’t think his age was worthy of a party – but his wife and I decided he’d be happy if we threw one. So we set the date for April 21st, compiled a guest list of 30 and booked a private dining room at a restaurant in Manhattan. I sent invitations and bought our plane tickets.
The surprise? Not that the coronavirus interrupted the celebrations (you already knew that), but that, in many ways, the Zoom party I made was better and better adapted to my father’s needs than the original.
Happy Birthday During The Pandemic
“The people there, from all over the United States, some I haven’t seen in years, collectively threw me a birthday party like I never could in a restaurant,” said my father, Irwin Wall, who lives primarily in New York , though, is spending the pandemic in my hometown of Riverside. “And even if they could have met, I would never have had the chance to talk to each of them separately. It turned out to be one of the most significant experiences of my life.
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With continued uncertainty about the feasibility of large in-person gatherings, people around the world are turning to video conferencing for all kinds of celebrations, from weddings and proms to milestone birthdays. Of all these, birthdays are perhaps the most difficult to translate online: birthday celebrations inherently lack structure. Even the birthday serenade can be risky, as anyone who has tried to sing in unison over video conferences knows.
And attending an unstructured Zoom party populated by unfamiliar faces can be just as awkward as showing up to a party where you know no one or more. It’s harder to read faces and body language on our screens, you can’t just imagine the person closest to you, and no one is going to buy you a drink to relax if you can’t find the mute button.
“Planning ahead is key. Otherwise, a Zoom party is naturally hard to come by,” said Stacy Wichelhaus, event planner and designer at the San Francisco-based company They So Loved Events. “And you can’t expect the honoree to be responsible.”
Mine was planned down to the smallest detail. I started with a theme that gave the event a solid structure: “This Is Your Life”, based on a TV show in which a celebrity is surprised by the appearances of long-lost friends and colleagues.
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The maximum length my father could sit in front of the computer was 2 1/2 hours, I thought. And now that the party was virtual, I could greatly expand the guest list; we were no longer limited to just New York friends and family. I broke the event into five minute segments and created a spreadsheet of when each guest would have their five minutes with them. Each guest was invited to stay as long as they liked, but was told they would be steamed unless it was their turn.
“To share a favorite memory with him, or something you like about him, or some sort of short toast,” I told her guests in my pre-party email. “Please DO NOT talk about the coronavirus or ask how he is doing in quarantine (it will get tiring over two hours).”
I organized the guests into groups. First, family: father’s older brother and his wife in New Jersey, and two first cousins. Then came his childhood friends, then college, then co-workers and other friends. As each family took their turn, I used the zoom feature to highlight each speaker so they filled the entire screen. There were only a few technical issues, with one person not showing up and another not knowing how to unmute (unfortunately I couldn’t either), but deciding to talk to him later.
For those who want to spend a little more on milestone birthdays, event planning companies will continue to rely on online offerings for the foreseeable future, and it can definitely raise the bar for making such an online gathering more festive.
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Dan Rosenbach, general manager of Love in the Mix, an Emeryville event company, suggests renting out mood lighting to create a completely different ambiance in the honor home.
Some virtual party hosts are now hiring chefs and mixologists to demo, according to Rosenbach; Ingredients are delivered to guests’ homes before the event. Other activities, such as a dance class, can provide the backbone for a fun Zoom party, she says. A family member can put together a presentation of the life of the honoree and share it with everyone, or hire a magician or speaker. And event planners can handle the technology.
As a surprise, Rosenbach pointed to the website cameo.com, which offers how celebrities, athletes and reality TV personalities can create a personalized celebratory video message for the honoree for a fee.
But those who throw house parties like the one I threw for my father said they are quite rewarded.
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Earlier this month, Justine Hirsch hosted an 80th birthday party for her mother, Elizabeth Smith. Both women live in Oakland. Originally, the event was to take place in an East Bay park, with about 200 guests invited to come and go as they pleased.
The Zoom party wasn’t much different; it also ran all day, almost 12 hours, with short breaks. Hirsch asked guests to sign up four at a time; they could join other friends they know or meet someone new. Like I did, he also created a spreadsheet and shared it with everyone beforehand.
Because the party ran from 9:30 until the evening, Smith was able to connect with friends living abroad, which I could not do with my father’s friends in France. “I’ve been able to be with people who live in Paris, Hawaii, Houston, Washington, Connecticut, Boston and Italy,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t have happened in person.”
And unlike meetings where everyone is always vying for the honoree’s attention, “I had a real conversation with everyone,” Smith said. “I didn’t expect it to have that sense of intimacy because we don’t touch or hug or kiss, but it didn’t matter. It turned out to be my best birthday party yet.
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Hirsch was also present throughout the day, knowing that some guests might need technical support; he said about a third of them did. In a highlight for her, she was able to help an uncle and an aunt with whom she had lost contact. All together on Zoom, they talked about planning a Zoom family call in the near future.
Hirsch recommends getting a Zoom Pro account (free accounts limit sessions to 40 minutes) and removing any settings that require guests to enter a password. (If the link is sent to guests, not posted publicly, it probably won’t fall into the hands of Zoombombers.) He also recommends being on hand to help those with technical difficulties, so the honors can simply enjoy themselves.
His mother, Smith, certainly did. The Zoom Party gave her the opportunity to check in on friends, even those far away. “I would certainly celebrate like this again even without a pandemic,” she says.
The Chronicle’s flagship news podcast. Listen and subscribe to your favorite app. Click the player below for the latest episode. From Zoom parties to socially distanced games, this is how my family celebrated one year of pandemic birthdays
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He invites his friends for a sleepover. Actually two sleepovers because one of her best friends had another party to attend on the day of the original party.
You probably know where this story is going: that was the last “normal” birthday we celebrated last year.
It is now Wendy’s thirteenth birthday. We have a Mandalorian theme. And everything is different. We had two more parties for his friends. But this is to keep the number of guests in the Zoom room at a manageable level.
We only invited our immediate family members to allow for social distancing. We were masked. We had individual desserts why blow out the candles on a communal cake? Not suitable for COVID.
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When Wendy’s birthday rolled around, every member of our family had a pandemic birthday. Two were during the lockdown. Two were milestone birthdays (Wendy’s first year as a teenager, Alex’s sweet 16). All were different from normal. Here’s how we adapted, addressed and even changed some things for the better.
We tried to replicate some of the ways we usually celebrated. Some just didn’t work. Instead of inviting my sisters over to watch movies, we tried to sync what we were watching and talk to them via Zoom at the same time. No one was really in sync and things kept falling apart. It was just a little frustrating.
My mom usually takes me shopping for my birthday present. Since that wasn’t possible this year – and I didn’t really feel the need for new clothes in my wardrobe of sweatshirts and slippers for working from home – my parents bought me a bag of books instead, which they gave me as we talked have on my porch. Those books were