It’s a pandemic and I’ll party if I want to (safely, of course)

Families find a new normal in all routines, including birthdays

By Lindsey Bunin
Photos by Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Blowing out the candles atop the cake is just one of many birthday party traditions that went by the wayside over the past two years.

As the pandemic evolved, so did creative ways of celebrating birthdays. Drive-by parades of honking friends and family turned into small gatherings outdoors. Eventually, as government relaxed public health protections, outings like hotel stays and trips to the movie theatre resumed.

But will we ever get back to the days of inviting the entire Primary class over for cake and pin the tail on the donkey? Some parents lamented having to plan COVID-19 birthdays while others breathed a huge sigh of relief. 

Dartmouth mom Jodie Mulford has done her best to take the changes in stride.

“I loved the traditional parties,” says Mulford. “The ones at home are more personal. You get to invite your friends to your home, and they get to see where you live, your room and meet your family. Those parties also include more one-on-one time, as opposed to, say, at a pool or indoor playground. When you have a party in a public place, you are surrounded by other people who aren’t at your party.”

Mulford thinks the loss of traditional parties will affect kids in many ways. 

“I think the biggest impact is losing their basic social skills, like the ability to walk onto a playground and just begin to play with another kid they’ve just met,” she says.

The blended family of four (Mulford, husband Alex, 17-year-old Jacqueline and seven-year-old Claire) kept the good times going throughout the pandemic with parties tailored to each stage of restriction. 

“Last year, Claire wanted to have a glow-in-the-dark dance party,” she recalls. “We let her invite 11 guests in total. Then there was a spike in cases and new restrictions were put into place, which meant she couldn’t invite everyone, so we decided to divide her party into two separate weekends. She had friends from her school bubble and then friends from her social bubble.

“I miss how much easier it was to coordinate having people come over. Your RSVPs are never 100 per cent anymore because as soon as someone has a sniffle, that’s it, they are most likely not coming to your party.”  

COVID also affected popular party venues. Jennifer Punch is director of marketing and sales at the Discovery Centre in Halifax. Once a popular birthday party destination, the venue had to put celebrations on hold.  


Birthday party destinations such as the Discovery Centre are opening again for celebrations.

Given the target audience for Discovery Centre — primarily families with young children — they took a very cautious approach to reopening the facility, including adjusting hours for extra cleaning, limiting capacity, instituting online ticketing and delaying restarting special events, which includes birthday parties. They plan to be open again for parties in the summer.

“Since we are a science centre, we took the opportunity to create demos to educate children on germs and virus transmission and what they can do to protect themselves during a pandemic or a regular flu season,” says Punch.

She adds it will take time for birthday parties to reach the pre-pandemic popularity, but once the weather shifts in the fall, she hopes for a return to normal. 

Despite the challenges, Mulford, like most parents, aims to keep her celebrations joyful.

“I always felt the cake was the centrepiece of any birthday, when the lights went out and everyone would begin singing … the excitement of trying to blow out all the candles and seeing what kind of cake was inside,” Mulford says. 

That special moment has not been lost in her household. To make the cake feel special, even though blowing out candles became a pandemic no-no, Mulford now opts for sparklers to adorn the top instead. 

While parents may exercise a new level of caution, one special tradition remains: families will do all they can to ensure their kids’ birthday wishes come true.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

2 1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

3/4 cup butter

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

2 cups grated peeled zucchini

1 cup chocolate chips

Instructions (for one cake)

Preheat oven to 350°F and grease an 8” cake pan. Next,
combine flour, cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a
bowl and whisk together.

Cream sugar and butter together. When fully combined, add eggs one at a time, then zucchini and remaining wet ingredients. Add in dry ingredients and mix together. Add mix to cake pan and bake for 60–70 minutes.

When cooked (a cake tester or toothpick pulls out clean), allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.

Ruby Rhubarb Syrup

Ingredients

4 cups rhubarb, chopped

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 cup honey

2 cups water

Instructions 

Combine the rhubarb, sugar, honey and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is soft and the liquid is pink. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 10–15 minutes.

Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the rhubarb through the strainer until most of the liquid is in the bowl. Press the solids gently to get as much liquid out as possible. The leftover solids make a great spread. 

Pour the syrup into a clean bottle, allow to cool and cover. The syrup will keep for weeks if refrigerated. 

Combine syrup with soda water and ice cubes to taste for a sparkling and refreshing drink!  

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