Say what you like about 2020: we’ve celebrated things we never thought we would. Carefully grasping your fingers – hand-sanitised to the point of cracked and raw – around the last carton of free-range eggs back in March? You did a little dance in the Tesco supermarket aisle. Convincing your housemate that ‘Too Hot To Handle’ was necessary viewing, then binging the whole damn show over a weekend? A genuine April highlight. Messaging everyone in your ‘Quorona Quiz’ WhatsApp group in May to say that maybe this thing had ‘run its course’? An instant hit of serotonin. But what about the most ubiquitous cause for festivities: the birthday? Depending on when it falls for you, your 2020 birthday could have been marked by an e-card from Mum or a gathering of 30 at Telegraph Hill.
1. The Before Times blowout
When January and February.
Oh sweet ignorant babies. Innocents who could not have known that in mere months, the act of blowing out candles – literally blasting disease-carrying saliva on to food – would be considered a crime most heinous. As 2020 revealed its true colours, those blessed with early-in-the-year birthdays often remarked on how ‘crazy lucky’ they were and how they ‘wished they’d known what was to come’, saying they ‘would’ve booked a big table at Hawksmoor, or something’. It makes a change from them moaning about how close their birthday is to Christmas, at least.
The Instagram post A head on another’s shoulder. Hands around someone else’s waist. Fingers vying for the last few crisps in a communal crisp bag. The carefree smiles of humans for whom the ‘rule of six’ could mean, what, Henry VIII’s wives or something?
2. The denial rave
‘If your friends ask you to meet, you should say no.’ Even Boris’s powerful edict could not tame your sesh-monster pal, who spent the uncertain weeks in the lead-up to The Speech indulging in an almost aggressive level of partying – then couldn’t quite let go once lockdown hit. Either they were already part of a ‘collective’ of ‘tech creatives’ who continued organising ‘conscious gatherings’ in their Tottenham warehouses throughout lockdown. Or, they endured crushing boredom long enough, were hit with the realisation that they’d have to spend their birthday in a flat with a housemate who, for some reason, subsists only on frozen Bird’s Eye waffles and sriracha, then smashed a few tinnies and started texting their loosest friends (you) in search of an actual b’day bash.
The Instagram post Nothing at all. Except, if you dig deeper, some blurry three-second Instagram Stories posted at 4am by some party guests...
3. The aspirational Zoom birthday
When March to June.
One day, we’ll refer to the ‘lockdown aesthetic’: artfully positioned lighting rigs for flawless Zoom calls; matching comfortwear; banana bread. The #LockdownBirthday!-haver perfected this aesthetic, and knew that their birthday would be their time to shine. They prepared Pinterest boards, they learned how to make Berber & Q’s cauliflower shawarma, they signed up to the HopIn ‘online venue’ platform so that guests could break out into sub-rooms. Of course a quiz was involved. If only you’d recalled the name of Joe Exotic’s third husband, you’d have won a bottle of natural wine from Shop Cuvée.
The Instagram post A carousel with the following: first, a Scandi-style table topped with five Bloom & Wild bouquets; second, a top-down image of a Smokey Robinson burger made from the Patty & Bun meal kit; third, a perfect grid of smiling digital faces; fourth, the same grid, but a ‘silly one’ with some people holding household objects above their heads.
4. The ‘surprise’ party
When March to June.
Some people fucking love birthdays – especially novelty birthdays. Last year it was Ballie Ballerson, the year before it was drag queen brunch at the Queen of Hoxton. As the lockdown extended past April and these friends’ birthdays rolled around, you knew that you’d have to do something to make them feel special. You need not have put their birthday into your calendar, though – their hints were unsubtle. They peppered the group chat with Puff the Bakery recipes, viral TikToks of surprise lockdown street-dances and that New York Times article recommending that this year’s ‘transition ritual’ involve a ‘virtual sound bath’. You did not make them virtual sound baths. You have limits.
The Instagram post A rush of Instagram Story frames, reposted from friends, wishing them a happy birthday. Captions include: ‘Get yourself pals like mine’, and ‘When your best mates surprise you during lockdown!’.
5. The train crash
When June or July.
June had a chaotic energy. We began to emerge – outdoors in groups of six – fresh with Dominic Cummings-fuelled rage and a hunger for human connection. Did you really think that your first IRL birthday party since lockdown would be all elbow bumps and goodbyes at sundown? Hell no: it started that way, sure, but all it took was a few cans and a portable speaker playing your favourite song for things to get wild. When darkness fell over Telegraph Hill, someone said ‘back to mine?’, and you all tripped over yourselves to get there. The sesh never felt so good, but the next day, the shame was real. When your parents asked to meet up, you suggested leaving it a week, just in case…
The Instagram post A perfectly curated, perfectly legal ‘Socially distant birthday!’ photo. Six people in a park, spaced at least two metres apart, each holding a small cup of prosecco. Nothing to see here.
6. The anti-birthday birthday
When June onwards.
If the summer tasted like one thing, it was separate hummus: hummus divvied up into individual plastic containers with little piles of quinoa crisps. One afternoon, while admiring the London skyline by the bandstand at the Horniman, you asked your August-born friend what they were thinking of doing for their birthday. They nearly spat out their separate hummus. They’d completely forgotten about their birthday. What is time, anyway, when the days all begin melding into one – not even the Thursday night NHS clap to mark its passing? Plus, they’d just read that Jeff Bezos had become billions richer because of the pandemic and that pissed them right off. They decide to skip their birthday this year… and have a sad WhatsApp exchange with you instead.
The Instagram post Nothing.
7. The six-person extravaganza
When August to October.
Thanks to the rule of six and its many confusing iterations, towards the end of summer, party-planning became like trying to do a GCSE maths problem. ‘If seven pals are Covid-nervous and eight could be considered borderline Covid-criminal, how do you hold an event without offending anyone?’ The answer? A day-long session with friends on rotation. It began with a parental Zoom. It moved on to brunch at Bad Egg with the sensible folks. Later, a trip to the pub. At this point, the birthday person wished not to document their activity so as to retain their solid reputation with the brunchers (‘I agree, what are those weird silver canisters in the gutters?’). Then, er, some other stuff…
The Instagram post On the grid, a socially distant brunch full of wholesome, happy faces. The Instagram Stories, however, tell a different story – one that ends with a barely visible pan around a dark room…
8. The post-lockdown Zoom hang
When August to November.
You thought something was up when, back in August, you suggested that you move the Wednesday virtual pub to a real-life hang, and your friend replied, ‘Why?’. Since then, it’s been tricky getting your friend out of the house. This is happening for one of two reasons: they’re nervous as hell, or they got a little too into the hermit life and are living it up watching ‘Selling Sunset’ with a bowl of Pasta Evangelists’ finest on their laps every night. Either way, even though their birthday landed in the summer or early-autumn unlocked zone, you knew it was going to be a Deep Lockdown throwback. The only difference? Zoom had got more sophisticated.
The Instagram post The Zoom grid. The ever-present, damned Zoom grid.
9. The anxiety-fuelled plan
To say that we’re living in ‘uncertain times’ in an understatement – and that was before someone discovered that there could be life on Venus. So, pending alien invasion aside, planning a birthday party for this December is a struggle. There are those who have put parties in motion – a camping trip, a visit to Thorpe Park, a group booking at Dishoom – who are wringing their hands with anxiety at any suggestion that the R rate is increasing. And there are those who have succumbed to the probable reality of a winter spent indoors, eating leftover Christmas turkey alone. Whatever happens, there’s always another Zoom quiz, right?
The Instagram post An Instagram poll: ‘Who reckons that the Scottish border will still be open in December? YES/YOU’RE DREAMING’.
Read about the eight types of Londoner to come out of lockdown.