It was my mother’s birthday dinner last night. We have a tradition at sofacasa with the Nans: each person gets to have a dinner party to celebrate the day they were born. They choose the menu (schnitzel and chips last night), set the table as they would like it and figure out seating arrangements. There is cake, we light candles and sing the song with gusto. Kiddie Champagne is served, or a non alcoholic cocktail. And the birthday girl or boy are waited on hand and foot.
Sometimes the evening causes stress and there are tears and a flounce or a sulk. Marriages have been threatened, friendships strained, sibling devotion sorely tested. I’ve learned to manage this by distracting the tearful one by sending them off for a hot bath, commissioning decorations for the table or pouring a large drink. Eventually the anxiety dissipates, but not before a number of people have asked me: “why do you put us all through this?”.
Sometimes I’m not sure.
I’ve never been one for tradition. When I lived in England I used to mock anyone who wanted to go and see the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. Who could tell that the Queen was in town by what flag that was hanging over Buckingham Palace. Who wanted to drive the Mall or make their way to Windsor Castle. I pooh-poohed the whole concept: “Who gives a damn. They’re just a tourist attraction”.
My response to Catholicism is pretty much the same. The Mass did little for me. Standing up, kneeling back down. Mumbling responses together. When I was a kid the nuns at Sacred Heart Convent would make us attend the funerals of their friends. We’d sit in terrified ranks on either side church, trooping up to gaze anxiously into the open coffin. Holding our breath so we would hear if the person exhaled (we were all terrified of being buried alive). Any nonsense and the Head Mistress would walk up behind the perpetrator and give their ear a sharp twist. Painful, but it reminded us we were still alive.
And that’s why I do it to all of us. I want the now to mean something to the children. Something more than just piles of discarded gifts. We do this together for memory sake. For framing who we are to each other. For creating a sweet new custom: tantrums and tears too. For embedding a sense of ceremony around life events that won’t always include us all. One that will link us long after the gifts have been forgotten.
(All photographs copyright campari&sofa. Taken by sofabrother.)