Creating Magical, Memorable, and Meaningful Birthday Traditions

Posted: November 02, 2020 | Updated: November 02, 2020
Created by: Ms. Sylvia

If you’ve ever spent time with young children (and if you’re reading this post, I imagine you’ve spent a significant amount of time with children!), you know that birthdays are a big deal. A toddler often likes to bake pretend birthday cakes, imagine their own birthday party, and celebrate the birthdays of stuffed animals and friends in their playtime. Older children think and talk about birthdays often. They are drawn to the treats and the gifts and the celebration, but also (I believe) are drawn to the mystery of being born. It’s fascinating that each of us did not exist before a certain point, and to exist is, in itself, a beautiful mystery. It’s part of what we celebrate on a birthday.

Celebrating a birthday is celebrating the birthday child, of course, but it also celebrates their growth, our best hopes for their future, and the impact they’ve had on our lives.

If that’s what a birthday means to us, how can we convey through the way we celebrate? Each family and culture has their own beautiful rituals, but if you are searching for ways to add new traditions or to create a new kind of birthday experience for your family, here are some suggestions:

Celebrate with Birthday Stories

Open Books Laying in Bed

One of my favorite birthday memories is of reading The Birthday Door with my parents on the night of my birthday. We saved the book for that specific day and, at least for a few years, read it every year. Having a consistent story to look forward to creates a beautiful ritual.

Some other books that would make fantastic annual birthday read-alouds might be On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman, When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson, The Secret Birthday Message by Eric Carl, Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss, or Ling & Ting Share a Birthday Secret by Grace Lin.

Best of all, birthdays are an opportunity to tell the birthday child’s life story. This is especially popular in the Waldorf tradition, when a candle is lit for each year of a child’s life as you talk about what happened in that year. For example, you might begin, “You were born on a stormy Tuesday, five years ago. We were expecting you two weeks later, but you were so eager to be born that you came early. You had __ fingers, and __ toes, __ eyes, and a surprising amount of hair. To us you were perfect. When you were six weeks old, you smiled at me for the first time…." Continue sharing milestone events from each year. For an example or for a story to adapt, you might enjoy Nancy Foster’s story from the book Beyond the Rainbow Bridge.

Celebrate with Birthday Songs

Music adds to every celebration. The traditional birthday song is great, but if you’re looking for something new, here are some wonderful songs to add to your child’s birthday.

We Wish You a Happy Birthday

A traditional Waldorf birthday round

This round is very popular in the Waldorf Tradition. Children ages 9 and over will be able to learn to sing this in a round and younger children can enjoy singing it in unison.

We wish you a happy birthday
A joyous and celebrated birthday
To our friend [name]
May you live a joyful life

Tom Chapin’s Birthday Song

This was my favorite as a child. I grew up listening to his music on cassette tape and loved having this sung to me, as well as singing it at friends’ birthdays.

Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday,
We love you.
Happy Birthday and may all your
Dreams come true.
When you blow out the candles
One light stays aglow.
It’s the lovelight in your eyes
Where’er you go.

The Earth Goes 'Round the Sun

A birthday song from the Montessori Tradition

I was introduced to this birthday song and ritual while working as nanny to two children who attended Montessori preschool. I’ve since used it in my classroom, as well. During the song, the child walks in a large circle, with a candle (symbolizing the sun) at the center. You can have children or family members on the periphery hold symbols of the seasons in order (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) around the circle. The child can begin near the symbols of the season in which they were born, then walk around the circle slowly enough to arrive back where they started by the end of each verse.

(To the tune of The Farmer in the Dell)

The Earth goes ‘round the sun
The Earth goes ‘round the sun
It takes a year, your birthday’s here
And then you’re one!

The Earth goes ‘round the sun,
The Earth goes ‘round the sun,
It takes a year, your birthday’s here
And then you’re two!

Continue for as many verses as the child’s age.

The Year's Return

Ms. Sylvia’s Birthday Song

I wrote this song for my second graders’ birthday celebration. In the Waldorf tradition, children under the age of 9 sing songs that use only 5 tones (the pentatonic scale), which you’ll hear in this song. The same “circling” instructions from the Montessori birthday song can be followed for this birthday song. With a candle in the center of the circle, have the birthday child revolve around it.

The Earth takes a year to circle ‘round the sun
And today is my year’s return
__ times I have traveled around the sun
And each year, there is so much more to learn

The light of the sun shines down on Earth
Warming all humankind
I carry its light within myself
In my will, in my heart, in my mind

Celebrate with Special Birthday Rituals

Stories can be a beautiful birthday ritual, but there are many traditions that you can start as a family.

Here is a lovely (and slightly adapted) poem that many families like to share with their children on the evening before their birthday:

When someone switches off the light,
I’ll still be __ years old tonight.
But from the very break of day,
Before the children rise and play,
Before the darkness turns to gold,
Tomorrow, I’ll be __ years old.
__ kisses when I wake,
__ candles on my cake.

Another poem I love to use with my students each time someone has a birthday, is this Irish blessing:

My Wish for You - Poem

May love and laughter light your days
And warm your heart and home

May good and faithful friends be yours
Wherever you may roam.

May peace and plenty bless your world
With joy that long endures.

May all life’s passing seasons
Bring the best to you and yours.

For the day of a child’s birthday, it can be wonderful to have a “birthday fairy” or arrive in the night to hang up paper chains or bunting in their room or a shared family space.

Another fun ritual is to “camp” for the child’s birthday. This can mean going out in nature to a traditional campground, setting up a tent in a backyard, or even setting up a tent in your living space. Tents are always a treat and it creates a designated celebration space and can set a sense of occasion.

Instead of (or in addition to) telling your child’s autobiographical birthday story with milestones from each year of their life, consider writing your child a letter each year full of details from their year: the highlights, the challenges, the milestones, and the memorable, quiet moments. You might include photos, or even make a yearly photo album, with the letter included. These become treasured gifts through the years!

Donating old toys can be a wonderful way to celebrate a child’s growth and to also establish birthdays as a time of giving, as well as receiving. Volunteering for the community in other ways during your child’s birthday (or birthday month) is another way to celebrate.

Birthdays are a great time to start a time capsule, which can be as simple as a jar that you fill with special mementos from the year (ticket stubs, pictures, stones, etc.). At the next year's birthday celebration, go through the jar and relive the memories! You can then choose a few key items to save in a larger time capsule or scrapbook (but be sure to minimize before these become overwhelming to store!). I like to use a mason jar, but you might enjoy a wooden box, a shoe box, or a little bag.

Boy Wearing a Flower Crown

Wearing something special can be a ritual that translates to the classroom! My students have enjoyed golden paper birthday crowns or reusable cloth crowns (if using in a classroom, make sure they’re washable!) and a special birthday cape. To make your own cloth crown, these directions are fantastic. It will be a favorite of your birthday child for years and is fun to design with them in mind!

Cook Birthday Treats Together

Homemade Chocolate Cake Loaf

Baking a birthday cake can be joyful, but to be honest, it can also be stressful when you are trying to make it look like something gorgeous from Pinterest. If that’s in your skillset, what a beautiful gift! However, if it’s not, know that most children will enjoy decorating their own cake as much (or more) than anything fancy. There’s a lot of benefit to cooking with, rather than for, children of all ages. Provide some decorations (in measured quantities so that “going overboard” is still within reason) and have at it.

Instead of cake (or maybe in addition to cake), what other treats can you make together? What special meals belong to your family traditions or culture?

Give Simple and Active Gifts

Painted Flower Pot

My first year of teaching, I gave each of my 1st grade students a small, hand-painted terracotta pot with succulents planted inside. Each child requested the animal they would like to see on their terracotta pot and I would have it ready for their in-class celebration. This was a lot of extra work, but even with that work in mind, I was surprised by how meaningful the painted pots became. Handmade gifts are a wonderful gesture for birthdays. Plants in particular are special, because you can watch them grow together. An empty pot with seeds is a project, too!

Stones are another simple gift that I've seen be popular and meaningful for children of all ages. My four-year-old niece, Z, is fascinated by chrystals and my 6th graders chose polished stones as rewards over just about anything else I offered. A special stone, mineral, or fossil for a birthday can become a treasured gift!

Another great gift for all ages is an experience, rather than a physical object. What is something special you could do together as a family? Where could you go that would create new, amazing memories? What activity has your child been curious to try?

For additional suggestions of new birthday rituals and traditions to try, I highly recommend Ann Druit’s The Birthday Book.

However you celebrate, I hope that your birthdays are magical, memorable, and meaningful! What traditions mean the most to you? We’d love to hear from you!