The Power of Rituals: The Birthday Circle

happy birthday 1

Chloe and Malick celebrating their summer birthdays.

There is your chair, and the birthday child’s chair.
It is almost time.
The children are taking their circle places
while the birthday child goes to the box of birthday books
and makes her choice certainly and without hesitation.
You’ve taught the children to grow up with books
So no wonder a book is at the center of this ritual.
Now you fit the crown upon the birthday child’s head-
a ponytail to manage!–engaging the class all the while.
Okay? Ready?
Let the reading commence!

Happy Birthday Little Bear from a year ago
gives way to Just in Time for the King’s Birthday.
In this reading the King will be a Queen, Queen Sophie
to be exact, which extracts a wide smile from the birthday girl
each time you say it.
The children begin to mumble a few words with you,
and now they are reciting large sections of it
as though this is some birthday chorale,
the words some luscious candy
to be eaten once a year.
“Say the words to yourself, boys and girls,” you remind them,
and then you are accompanied by a silent chorus
as ecstatic as if they were singing Bach!

The End. The children are satisfied.
You give a child a smooth birthday stone
you found at Gerritsen Creek. The child knows just what to do.
This is the end of the second year, after all!
From child to child the rock is passed and from each
a message to the birthday child:
“We have been friends since we were little. Do you remember
when the fishtank broke in pre-school?”
“You always have a mischievous look on your face
and when you come into the room, I always think
it is like the sun coming into the room.”
            (You, fearless one, are always apart,
            teacher, negotiator, disciplinarian,
            and part of things,
           swamp walking, jitterbugging, birthday message.)
“Happy Birthday. Good Luck.”
“I want you to know you are a good friend to me.”
this is the time for the messages that bear saying
            (They are so much more sophisticated this year than last
            when the rock nearly flew around the circle.)
I imagine each child listens differently,
shyly, boldly, quietly,
with who knows what private dialogue
as she or he is appointed the center of the universe,
stars and planets revolving around this glittering birthday crown.
The child I am watching listens intently, nods, smiles
Goes into moments of a little reverie.

But isn’t that what the whole thing is about?
A reverie? A meditation on entering this world?
The dream is broken with a chorus of happy birthday,
then, how old are you?
The birthday child responds in song:
I am seven years old.
All together now: One two three four five six seven and,
Arms rolling, a roll for good luck. Napkins! Cupcakes!
“I want chocolate!” “I don’t like chocolate!” “I want red glitter!” “I want green!”
Ah, now we are back to the real world, a group of hungry seven year olds.

Seven! How did this happen? That
these children, so apprehensive, so new, so fresh two years ago
like wriggling tadpoles
should now be these self-assured youngsters,
rulers of their world, master of the ceremonies
that move them along in this classroom, their world,
their world, with you, the one they quote at home
attend to, criticize, praise, listen for, listen to (when all goes well)

For you, Queen Renee, la reine, la regina
We wish a birthday poem that includes the quiet joy
that comes with creation.
If we could gather these children together twenty years from now
to sing to you that birthday song,
we would find a chorus of voices in which,
yes, even after so many years, so many teachers,
so many events that we cannot possibly now know,
we would still hear you.

This beautiful poem, written by Sophie’s mother Barbara Danish,was a gift for me at the end of my second year teaching a class of lovely children. We began our birthday ritual in September of kindergarten and ended it in June of first grade. The poem really says it all.

Our ritual was simple. When the children came in I had a pre-cut but undecorated paper crown waiting on a table and children who wanted to began to “pretty it up” – crayons, markers, glitter – whatever they chose. The morning message contained the first official birthday wish of the school day.

At the end of the day we had our birthday circle. A chair was set up for the birthday celebrant. I had a basket of books with birthday themes for the birthday child to choose from. Some popular books were Just In Time for the King’s Birthday; Happy Birthday Little Bear; A Birthday for Frances; Happy Birthday, Moon; The Secret Birthday Message; Some Birthday!; Birthday Soup (a chapter in the Little Bear book), and A Letter to Amy. The birthday child picked a book for me to read to the class. The children giggled and loved when I substituted the name of the birthday child when I read the story!

I had a smooth stone that was our birthday stone. After the story, the stone was passed from child to child, moving around the circle. When a child held the stone, he/she shared a birthday wish. Some children merely said, “Happy Birthday.” Others shared a personal wish or a memory connected to the birthday child. It was so interesting to observe how the quality (and length!) of each child’s birthday wish changed as the year progressed. Since I had the children for two years, there was so much growth that I could see just by listening to the depth of these shared stories and wishes.

Next came the waited for moment. The birthday child made a silent wish and blew out a candle that was placed in the middle of the birthday cupcake. Cupcakes were usually brought to school in the morning by the child’s parents. On some occasions, I rushed out to buy cupcakes and juice at lunchtime if a child didn’t bring these to school. Parents were told at the start of the school year that they could only bring juice, cupcakes or muffins and, if they liked, some birthday plates and napkins. I did not allow cakes or party bags. Also, if children had parties outside of school that did not involve the entire class, then invitations had to be mailed, not given out in class.

After the candle was blown out, we sang the Happy Birthday song  and then children went to the tables to eat, drink and chat.

This was our ritual. The pattern was the same for each child. The children loved it. I loved it. Nobody had, what my mother-in-law would have called, a hooh-hah extravaganza and I really don’t think that anyone felt deprived. Our birthday ritual was part of the glue of our classroom community, overflowing with love,warm wishes and sometimes the tears of visiting parents!

6 thoughts on “The Power of Rituals: The Birthday Circle

  1. Joan Kramer

    This is a lovely ritual. My favorite parts are the books and the passing of the stone. It doesn’t take very long I assume. Do you do it the day of the birthday or celebrate all September birthdays on one day? I think some teachers did that. I honestly don’t remember. I do remember taking cupcakes to my daughter’s classrooms so everyone could celebrate. I often had to let her take them because I was teaching as well. But I think it’s lovely to share with classmates. Thank you.

  2. Renee Post author

    Hello Joan

    I did the celebration on the day of the birthday. We did it at the end of the day. It took about 30 minutes although at the end of the year the children had so much to say, so it might have taken a bit longer. I did have a celebration for summer birthdays at the end of the school year. Some years I had all summer birthdays together and some I did it on different days for each summer birthday child. I guess it depended on how many summer birthdays there were, how many June birthdays, etc. Obviously the photo I included in this posting was for a summer birthday celebration for two children. I think that they were in first grade (I looped with my kindergarten class) and my time was often more “pressed” in first grade.

    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Cecille. There’s probably so many more wonderful birthday books than I listed in the post.
      Have a wonderful school year!

  3. Amy Binin

    Lovely ritual Renee! I love how each child offers a message to the birthday child! I bet it’s fascinating to hear how the children’s comments develop over the course of the school year! I’m going to borrow this ritual if you don’t mind. Hopefully I’ve got a group of PreK students who can be active listeners for that long. My students last year could absolutely have participated in this ritual. Crossing my fingers! Thanks for sharing your thoughtful teaching experiences!


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