I long for the days when “Zoom” and “party” are never mentioned in the same sentence again. Outdoor gatherings are coming back soon, but here in Brooklyn, March is cold, April is rainy, and anyone who was born in these two months is now approaching their second pandemic birthday. We owe them a little extra love.
As we await vaccines, these spring babies deserve a party, preferably one that is both weather-safe and virus-safe. But how do you get a bummed-out, Zoom-fatigued friend to celebrate a rather dismal year around the sun? Here are three screen-tested approaches to online birthday party ideas, none of which involve awkward silence as a bunch of strangers stare at each other in little boxes on a screen.
A Totally Customized DIY Celebration
Just like real birthday gatherings, pandemic celebrations should be intentional and tailored to the person you’re celebrating. Take a minute and think about the birthday boy or girl. Is this a person who’d rather meet one-on-one for a drink or have a big ol’ bar party with everyone they know in one place? A virtual gathering can suit any sized guest list, but hear me out: A scheduled Zoom chat or FaceTime doesn’t count as a party. Whether you’re virtually meeting one-on-one or looping in a group, you’re going to have to plan a little something extra. Even the most impromptu in-person gatherings involve a little fun and some form of snacks and drinks.
If you were throwing an actual party, you’d purchase some food and beverages to share with your guests, right? If money is an issue, you could all just agree to order pizza and drink beer together, but it’s nicer if you can treat the guests—or at least the guest of honor—to a special drink or snack or meal. Imagine logging into your own birthday Zoom. It’s a lot less depressing when your bestie just had Leyenda deliver cocktails, croquetas, and churros to your doorstep.
If you’re physically near the other party guests, you could deliver goodie bags prior to the gathering, so you can all snack and sip together. Red Hook’s Wet Whistle Wines has a very drinkable and affordable selection of bottled and canned cocktails available for pick-up or delivery. At $5 per drink, the attractively packaged Wandering Barman cocktails make it easy to buy a round (or two!) for all of your guests. Or get a few four-packs of St. Agrestis Negronis (priced at $24.99 with free shipping in NYC). Pad your bags with some snack-size pretzels or pita chips and maybe something sweet. A bag of individually wrapped Snickers bars will do the trick, but for a special occasion, we’d splurge on an 80-count bag of No Chewing Allowed! French Truffles and gift our guests a variety of flavors—like salted toffee and pistachio macaron—designed to melt in your mouth.
The next thing you need to do is put a little planning into the conversation, to avoid a screen filled with blank stares. Maybe each guest could be invited to prepare a two-minute TEDTalk on something that’s bringing them joy (cozy mysteries, houseplants, baking, the Duke of Hastings all spring to mind) or maybe they could share a funny memory of the person whose birthday you’re celebrating. Two Truths and a Lie works well on Zoom if you’re inclined to play a pretty low stakes game. Ideally, one of these will spark conversation for a while, but don’t hesitate to put an end-time on your virtual party invitations as well as the obviously necessary start time.
The Evil Witches newsletter recently posted about the brilliance of a 30-minute zoom bridal shower, in which the guests were mailed Starbucks gift cards with their paper invitations, so they could grab a coffee before the gathering. Instead of dragging guests through hours of games and gift-unwrapping, the bride-to-be introduced the guests to one another, talked about her engagement, showed a couple of the presents she’d received, and they were done in 30 minutes. So, aim to fill half an hour—you can always extend the call if people are having a good time and want to stick around.
Pay Someone to Make It Fun
Anybody feeling stuck on that last part about conversation-planning? Honestly, it sounds a bit stressful to me, too. So, let’s think about the guest list and refreshments as described above and find someone else to get the virtual party going.
For a more boisterous birthday boy or girl, we’ve heard great things about NYC’s #1 drag game show, Linda Loves Bingo. Virtual bingo parties start at 7:45 on Saturday nights and tickets, which must be purchased in advance are $10 per guest. Players vie for fabulous prizes, like vase shaped like a bubble-blowing panda and a Britney devotional candle. Alternatively, for someone who is missing pub quiz nights, a private party with a live host from Game Night Trivia might be the perfect virtual birthday solution.
But what if you and your introverted birthday bestie can’t handle any of this right now? Rather than gathering up a gang of pals, perhaps this friend just needs to take a minute (or an hour) to focus on themselves. How about something that feels like therapy, with more magic and less emotional turmoil? I recently treated myself to a birthday Zoom session with Nikki Burst, a thoughtful and perceptive writer, poet, tarot reader, and astrologist who recently relocated from Brooklyn to the upstate town of Hobart, NY. Her natal chart readings ($75) require the date and time of your birth in order to find meaning in placement of the cosmos at the moment you were born. I’m not an astrology buff, but Burst’s interpretation of planetary alignments felt very specific to my life, and I found it fascinating to listen to her tapping into ancient wisdom. It’s been hard to find meaning during this pandemic year, but I came away from Burst’s reading feeling seen, understood, and ready for whatever comes next.
On a similar, note, if you’re looking to combine a spiritual reading with a physical gift, garage punk frontman King Khan offers a virtual tarot reading, a Black Power Tarot deck (featuring Black icons whom Khan believes followed the path of enlightenment, with Billie Holiday as the Moon and the Fool inspired by Richard Pryor), and a Black Power Coloring book for $100. At a time when every Zoom call feels more mind-numbing than the last, this is one way to make a mystical memory through virtual means, and it’s an apt celebration for anyone who believes in actively supporting Black lives.
The Kid-Centric Virtual Party
What makes a kid’s birthday party tolerable? The answer is pretty simple: Joyful children, minimal tears, and maybe chatting over a free drink with another parent that you like. A lot of this can happen virtually.
If you’re the kind of parent who likes to throw parties for your kids at home, apply the idea from the DIY Celebration up top to your child. Keep it small, deliver goodies in advance, and have some planned activities. For my 6-year-old’s birthday, we delivered party packs that involved matching light-up flower crowns, craft supplies, coloring pages, and non-perishable treats, like individually wrapped Rice Krispies Treats, juice boxes and Ring Pops. (If I did this again, I’d also throw in adult beverages for the kids’ parents!) The tiny guests showed up on-screen in party dresses, put on their flower crowns, strung beads on pipe cleaners to make magic wands, colored, sang happy birthday, ate treats, and had a dance party while I blasted Disney jams in my kitchen. We banged it all out in under an hour.
If you’d rather outsource your kid’s party planning, we’ve heard great things about the Brooklyn Game Lab’s card game and board game parties, as well as their Dungeons & Dragons Quest tailored to your guests’ ages (6 years old and up). Their online parties start at $350 for a guest count of six or fewer. It’s not cheap, but again, this is an article about virtual parties that don’t make you want to stab yourself, and if you’ve witnessed any kid-oriented performers harnessing the power of Zoom, you are well aware that a painless kid party is hard to achieve.
It’s also important to note that the little ones might be even more sick of Zoom than the rest of us, and it could be worth waiting a few weeks for a warm-ish Saturday in the park. The glory days of socially distant picnic blankets, passed cupcakes, and in-person conversations (through masks and sunglasses) will thankfully be here soon.