In my childhood house of a thousand siblings, there was only one day more exciting than Christmas.
On my birthday, I got to sit at the head of the breakfast table and preside over a plate of powdered doughnuts with candles. Powdered doughnuts might not seem very exciting compared to the Krispy Kremes and Voodoo doughnut delicacies of today, but back then they were a huge treat. Especially to a kid in a big family on a budget.
I also got a pile of presents (i.e., three). If there was a birthday cake later (or brownies, in the leaner years), I got the first piece. And I got seconds.
I got the front seat in the car.
For an entire day, the overlooked middle child was seen.
And I was queen. And it was good.
This is how I thought all birthdays should be. But as Australian-Asian blogger Mabel recently pointed out, every culture and every person is a little different when it comes to birthdays.
My husband Andy came from a Chinese-American family. He was the oldest boy, which meant he got most of the attention and food. As his family actually practiced family planning, he had enough food, too.
But birthdays and holidays? Nope. Andy remembers exactly one shocking Christmas with a tree and a ton of presents. He was sure Santa had made a mistake until his mom told him to open his gifts. Andy’s family never wasted money on pumpkins, turkeys, or Easter Baskets, either.
And birthdays? Andy’s grandmother, Popo, who grew up in China before the Communists took over, told him that it was better not to celebrate birthdays. “If you celebrate your birthday,” she explained, “evil spirits will take notice, realize you are still alive. Then perhaps they will remedy that situation.”
The first year we were a couple, I asked Andy want he wanted to do on his birthday.
Andy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
I was aghast. “It matters! It’s your birthday! You get to pick everything we do!”
“Really? I pick sex.”
I rolled my eyes and explained, “No, I mean, do you want to go out for dinner? Do you want me to surprise you or pick your favorite place? And what kind of cake do you want?”
“Uh, any cake that’s not from a grocery store,” Andy said.
“Are you kidding? I would NEVER! Who does that?”
“My mom. For my eighteenth birthday, she called me at work and told me to grab any kind of cake at Foodland on my way home.”
“I didn’t even have YOUR NAME ON IT?!” I screeched.
My horror was complete. That year, and every year after, I made Andy a cake. From scratch. I even bought a Wilton cake-decorating set so I could write “Happy Birthday Andy” on it in my own icing, rather than the bitter frosting tubes from the grocery store.
Andy’s favorite was the three-layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting. For short, we called it six-hour cake, because that’s how long it took to make the sucker. Every year, Andy would say, “No, no, you’re busy, it’s okay, you don’t have to!”
And every year, I’d think of his 18th birthday cake from Foodland and reply, “Oh yes I do.”
The first few years, I invited friends over to celebrate. Then I added his cousins and Aunt and Uncle. One year his brother was even in town, and he also joined us.
The following year, when I asked what he wanted to do, Andy asked, “Please can we have a party for just us?”
“You sure that doesn’t seem boring? You won’t get as many good presents.”
Andy snorted and said, “Their presents aren’t THAT good. And last year there was hardly any leftover cake!”
“Wait. It’s the cake? You just don’t want to share your cake?!”
Andy mumbled, “Well, it’s really good cake. And it’s not THEIR birthday. They don’t deserve that cake.”
Now we celebrate Andy’s birthday alone and Andy eats his cake for a week.
And he is king.