Photo by Sabrina Manno

When It Rains: Celebrating During Covid

Guest blogger Sabrina Manno from "A Momma & Her Pen" illustrates how planning children’s birthday parties during COVID offers parents a unique opportunity to get creative with themes and traditions in a fun, intimate, and memorable way.

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Allow me to introduce a fellow writer, friend, and first-ever guest blogger, Sabrina Manno! At her website, A Momma & Her Pen, you'll find honest, heartfelt insights on the greatest journey of all: motherhood.  Here she inspires us to take a page out of her book and make some lemonade out of the limitations of the pandemic.

“Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass ... It's about learning to dance in the rain.”

― Vivian Greene

There’s no doubt we’ve been living in a raging, violent storm for almost a year now. It’s a storm no one should ever have to wade through and yet I can’t help but feel thankful for the opportunity. Because while my family has struggled to cope at times, many times in fact, we’ve also created some beautiful, happy, positive memories under this safe and secure, yet sometimes stifling, umbrella we call home.

Memories like:

  • Weekend mornings spent in quiet reflection at a local grotto.

  • Sunday family movie nights snuggled on the couch.

  • Special at-home “date nights” planned around livestream concerts and decadent menus of homemade breads, cheeses, and wine.

  • Lazy summer days floating around the pool and reminiscing about past vacations, favorite moments during quarantine, and dreams of what we’d do first once this horrible pandemic is over.

  • Traditional Sunday meals around the dinner table using “fancy” only-for-a-special-occasion China and crystal.

  • Family painting sessions on warm, sunny afternoons, using mom’s “super-cool” acrylic painting supplies (canvas, easels, brushes, paints in all sorts of happy colors).

  • Brand-new quarantine-initiated holiday traditions like homemade scavenger hunts, pin the spider on the web/hat on the elf games, virtual Christmas concerts, and a gingerbread man baking and decorating party. 

But out of all these special occasions, my absolute favorites so far have been our birthday celebrations. 

I’m not the type of momma who rents out the local play café or invites the whole class and neighborhood over for a pool party. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing that, of course—we’ve been to many of these bashes and they are amazing and so fun! It’s just not my style. When I was growing up, we celebrated birthdays at home, with family, a few party decorations, and simple party fare. Think pizza, ziti with meatballs, or deli sandwiches, chips & dip, soda (oh God, the soda!) or juice (I’m looking at you, Hi-C!), and a “homemade” birthday cake from a box. They were the best parties ever and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

So, when it came time for my own kids’ birthday parties, of course I took a page out of my mom’s book. Why fix what ain’t broke, right? We celebrate at home, with family and a few special friends, a huge assortment of home-cooked vittles, and a made-from-scratch birthday cake, complete with décor that matches the corresponding party theme. They are casual, comfortable, and cheerful. Not to mention fun as hell, if I do say so myself.

Then the pandemic hit. It’s crazy the things we take for granted before we’re slapped with a situation that upends everything. Instead of commemorating our special days with big, boisterous family gatherings, we were all relegated to the confines of our own homes and stuck hosting small, rather subdued affairs. That was hard in the beginning, but then something magical happened.

It all started with my son’s 5th birthday—he’s a Christmas Eve baby. I had this whole list of new family traditions I wanted to try out because we were going to be stuck at home, alone, for the holidays. One of those ideas was a Polar Express night. My kids love, LOVE riding the Polar Express. They beg to go every year, and I always oblige because, well, I love tradition and I love family excursions! Our cherished train ride was cancelled in 2020—obviously—so in lieu of that, I decided to make it the theme of my boy’s birthday party. 

I kept things super simple: décor consisted of a Happy Birthday banner, a train tracks table runner, train paper plates, and balloons. He wanted pizza for dinner, so my husband whipped up a homemade upside-down square pie (it was divine!). I made him a marble cake with milk chocolate frosting, adorned with train tracks, a Polar Express conductor’s hat ornament, and a black toy train from the days when my son was obsessed with “choo-choos.” The cake looked like a train wreck (no pun intended), but my son loved it! He told us, “Thank you, mommy and daddy, for doing this for my birthday.” That sweet, simple comment meant everything. 

For the “party” part, we all put on our Christmas pajamas and spent the evening dancing around our family room to the Polar Express soundtrack, in the soft glow of our twinkling, multi-hued Christmas tree. We sang happy birthday, stuffed ourselves full of chocolatey cake and hot cocoa—with marshmallows!—and ended the night snuggled on the couch while I read the story of The Polar Express, just like they do on our beloved train ride. The whole thing took about two hours, but my kids told me it was the best night they had ever had. Music to a parent’s ears!

It was such a success that I immediately began making plans for my daughter’s birthday one month later, only this time I organized a tea party! I bought the prettiest sea green tablecloth speckled with white polka dots and tiny pink and yellow flowers, and the cutest vintage tea plates and “golden” teaspoons elegantly decorated with roses, sunflowers, and pansies. We even used a real porcelain tea set and dressed to the nines (party dresses and straw flowery hats for the girls and vests/jackets and tweed newsboy caps for the boys). It was so lovely and chic! 

And the menu, oh the menu: mini crustless grilled ham and cheese sandwiches (my daughter’s favorite, of course), a lightly dressed pasta salad, cucumber spears, pretzel twists, French onion dip, and chicken “poppers.” We washed it all down with a delicately sweetened black tea with milk. For dessert, my girl requested a (decadent) red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, with piped-on pink and purple flowers. It truly was a special occasion and one I don’t think my beautiful daughter will ever forget. Nor will I. 

Now, it just so happens that during our fashionable tea party, as we sat around the table enjoying our delectable delights, my husband pointed out that we had inadvertently started celebrating a “season” of birthdays—winter for my son and spring for my daughter. I cannot tell you how much I adore this idea (yep, huge cheeseball right here), so I’ve decided to take it all the way by planning a summer theme for my husband (his birthday’s in March) and an autumn theme for yours truly (in April). I can’t think of a better way to round out this beautiful “year.” 

We’ve all lived a lifetime of seasons since March 2020. My family, too, has certainly dealt with its fair share of sorrow and tragedy and loss. But hosting these small, intimate celebrations made me realize something important. Kids don’t need hoopla and fanfare to enjoy the milestone moments of their lives. All they need are their parents’ love, support, attention, and time (and cake, definitely cake). Big bashes with family and friends are a wonderful treat, of course, and we all miss them terribly. But if we’ve learned anything from this horrible pandemic, it’s that the simple things count the most. 

And that no matter how brutal the storm, we can always find a way to dance in the rain.

Sabrina Manno is the creator and author of A Momma & Her Pena personal blog primarily about parenting and being a stay-at-home. Before becoming a momma, Sabrina spent 13 years working as an editor in New York City, but she gave it all up to stay home with her two beautiful children! Aside from writing—her true passion—Sabrina loves reading, cooking/baking, Josh Groban, Disney, solitary trees, coffee, all things related to autumn and the holiday season, and traveling with her family.

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