Creating our own rituals: Celebrating milestones during the coronavirus

Illustration of eight people wearing party hats and smiling, celebrating one person's birthday.
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Celebrating milestones such as birthdays and graduations during a pandemic is strangely unfamiliar. What should feel like a step forward into adulthood feels futile when you are physically stuck in the same place. However, making changes to the way we celebrate milestones while keeping ourselves safe, observing these events either virtually or from a 6-foot distance, is necessary to commemorate transitioning into adulthood. 

With the rituals we would usually perform to mark these transitions prohibited — rituals such as singing happy birthday before blowing out candles on a cake in front of your friends and family, or making the pilgrimage together to the grocery store to buy your first bottle of wine while still nervously feeling like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be — we’re forced to create our own rituals. 

Marking these milestones in some way, such as simultaneously attempting to sing happy birthday through 20-person Zoom calls or graduating via Minecraft, is an attempt to distract from a strange, dreamlike limbo in which time doesn’t pass and you have not truly gotten older, graduated or taken a step closer toward leaving college and becoming a true adult. 

We debated over Zoom what to do for my roommate Aisha’s 21st birthday. We brainstormed all the ways we could pay homage to her virtually: making a quiz in which guests could win points for correctly guessing fun facts about her, recreating “Aicha,” a viral, early-2000s music video of a kid with slicked-back hair singing her name, or attempting to get her favorite celebrities to send her a birthday shoutout. Or, we could drive past her house, performing a choreographed, upper body-focused dance out the window while singing happy birthday at the top of our lungs. 

The complexity of these plans may have been due to a newfound amount of time on our hands or boredom now that we were back home, but in reality, we wanted to make her birthday as special as possible, to somehow commemorate her becoming a true adult in a way that felt real. 

After living with each other for a year, however, it felt strange not to see her in person and say happy birthday, even from a distance. I threw away my plans of FaceTiming her in the morning and presenting her with a curated Spotify playlist, and the morning of her birthday, I gathered my supplies. I loaded into my car my face mask and gloves, along with a birthday cake and a bottle of wine. Before I started the car, I spotted my barista apron in the passenger seat. While I was allowed to stay in my car, I thought of the possibility of getting pulled over, and at worst, fined, for traveling without a clear essential purpose. I thought that perhaps I could say I was traveling for work? I then realized this was ridiculous and crumpled it into the back seat. 

After living with each other for a year, however, it felt strange not to see her in person and say happy birthday, even from a distance.

When I reached her house, I donned my protective gear and placed the cake and wine at her front door, simultaneously video chatting with our friends who had, at the outbreak of the pandemic, left the country. When she discovered the cake and wine and sat down on the doorstep, I sat cross-legged on the street while we each held up our phones so that our friends could sing happy birthday. 

Sitting on the street, even at a generous 6-foot distance, I felt a wave of relief. While we had FaceTimed and video chatted countless times since leaving our shared home, by physically being in the same space again after what felt like months of seperation, we had returned to a small sense of normalcy. I sat on the street for so long that the heat of the asphalt burned my legs and the sun scorched the back of my neck, but I returned to my car feeling a little lighter.

When we gathered for the Zoom call that night, each of us dressed in our favorite versions of our most Aisha-like outfits, we once again sang happy birthday when she entered the Zoom call and flipped through virtual homages to our friend. One friend’s father popped into the call to sing Aisha a happy birthday, and my younger sister entered my room to briefly join in on the party and to steal a sip of my drink. 

As the night wound down and we closed our presentation with our rendition of “Aicha,” we were left with each other — miles apart, but together. Though our connection was sometimes disrupted and using Zoom to host our friend’s 21st birthday party felt strangely professional at first, by the end of the night, I had never felt closer to the faces looking back at me on the screen, some of whom I barely knew. The combination of the light buzz from the alcohol and how late the night had gotten provided a sense of intimacy I hadn’t felt outside of my family since I had returned home. 

Coming together virtually to celebrate these milestones holds a newfound vulnerability. The question, “How are you?” carries more weight, and speaking to each other, without the ability to see one another at a moment’s notice, feels more valuable. 

While we can no longer foresee a clear vision of the future in the coming months, celebrating our friendships, health and milestones despite life seemingly coming to a pause returns some normalcy to life as we know it. While it may feel selfish at times to celebrate given the overwhelming suffering of victims and their families, expressing love for friends and loved ones reminds us that we are in this together, though miles apart. By discordantly singing happy birthday or throwing a graduation cap into the air via Zoom, we are not stepping into adulthood as we imagined it, but we are doing something to give the milestones meaning. 

Contact Marina Newman at [email protected].

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