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The art of the surprise birthday party: A personal essay

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NOVEMBER 13, 2023

nter six girls, armed with nothing but a dream and a “Wine Country” postcard. Sure, they’ve only known each other for maybe three days, but it’s clear they’re “lightning in a bottle.” Every room they grace becomes a tinderbox of glimmering banter and inside jokes, of shared secrets and belly laughter. They don’t know it yet, but that postcard they’re carrying — addressed to their seventh friend, Cat, the birthday girl — is a spark. They walk into her dorm at the stroke of midnight. One pair of shaky hands presses record on a digital camera while another passes the postcard to the world’s newest eighteen-year-old, who’s half-awake and half-surprised we even knew it was her birthday. All vocal chords are in use, each one singing “Happy Birthday,” each one slightly off-key. It’s a poor excuse for both a surprise and a gift, but still. The spark flies, and the match has been irreversibly struck; the fuse is undeniably lit. The flame of a tradition has caught.

Since then, it’s become clear to me that planning a surprise birthday party is its own art form. My friends and I do it exceptionally well. It’s a careful, meticulous medium that involves one “secret” group chat, six co-conspirators and countless half-baked ideas that peter out. But there’s always one that sticks, one plan that actually makes it out of the group chat. The scheming happens in text flurries sent under dinner tables of cold chicken, the preparation between Trader Joe’s freezers over hushed tones. The surprise itself may remain secret, but between the eight of us, the process is decidedly not. 

It starts with a blank canvas: the group chat. Call us up-cyclers, but we’ve been using the same one since that first birthday. Like phases in a life, the chat once called “Cat” has also been “party 4 Anishka,” “Ananya’s rager” and “Devi :)” — currently, the group chat is in its “Vinaya bday bash” era. Immediately after a birthday passes, the next upcoming birthday girl gets removed from the conversation, the latest celebrant gets re-added in their place, and the chat is renamed accordingly. If you care to look close enough to read through past texts, you can see the brushstrokes of previous plans. But we’re quick to update the chat and move on, clearing the slate for our next magnum opus.

After that comes the sketching — in pencil, because erasing will be abundant. We get a grasp on what we’re drawing by gauging the personality of the person we’re planning for. Anishka, for example, is especially social, fluttering from room to room like one of Van Gogh’s butterflies. For her, we were maximalists and drew up a lounge party, knocking on random doors and promising cake so we could pack the room with as many people as possible. On the other end, Devi and her reserved nature were the muses for an intimate picnic of pastries, fruit and tulips — a modern pastiche of Rachel Ruysch’s still lifes. Brainstorming what to do is the easy part. It’s figuring out when to do it that’s hard. Our group Google calendar could easily be part of Piet Mondrian’s oeuvre, our very own composition with red, blue and yellow; only these color blocks signify our busy periods rather than the spirituality of geometry. Sometimes, we have to play Michelangelo and take a chisel to the marble of our schedules, manually carving out a window of availability — but nevertheless, that window exists. Only after the time and date is established can we move from pencil to pen. 

Ink tracing starts with buying the essential “Wine Country” postcard (shoutout to Games of Berkeley). Each birthday girl receives a postcard depicting some variation of rustic chateaus and lush vineyards such as an Arcadian Rococo scene — for no reason other than Tori and I (consistently on postcard duty) find it so stupid it’s funny. But even still, we make sure to tailor each postcard to the person we’re buying it for. This personalization obviously comes from the message on the back, but there’s the image on the front too. For example, Devi — an economics major and Tori’s “favorite capitalist” — got one that flashed property values in Napa Valley. Along with the postcard, we like to buy gag gifts too. There was the random Cal ID card we found that we gave Cat; the Coca-Cola we pulled from an Andy Warhol pop print for Pepsi hater Anishka; Ananya’s whoopie cushion; and Devi’s “I ♥ Mormon Boys” t-shirt (no, I’m not taking questions at this time). 

Finalizing the plan is like arranging a mosaic. The foreground details — like sneakily buying a cake and dropping cryptic hints about what to wear — are all tesserae falling into place. Of course, sometimes we have to color outside the lines. Back in September, Ananya wanted to celebrate with a “rager”; the best we could do for her was an aggressive karaoke session and a sad frat party. But we give it our best effort — because every birthday is a love letter to our friend’s joy and individuality. Every birthday is a portrait of girlhood and growing up in the intolerable twilight of our teenagedom. 

The unofficial last step in the process is to take more pictures than we know what to do with. After birthdays, our group PhotoCircle could fill a gallery, but most of our shots don’t see the light of day. À la Faith Ringgold, our pictures are the blocks of our story quilt, collaging together to make a patchwork of warmth and comfort for future nostalgia. When the party’s over, we’re Banksy, ready with the shredder and prepared to revamp the group chat to do it all over again. Perhaps we’re no Renaissance women when it comes to party planning. But with every tea party, every digital camera vlog, every midnight postcard, we try. And maybe that’s enough. 

Contact Bella Liu at 


NOVEMBER 13, 2023