7 Ideas for a Simple, Meaningful Birthday

We celebrated Elle’s birthday yesterday, and had a lovely, simple celebration as she turned three. She has been looking forward to this day for months, often waking up and asking “Is today my birthday?” We opted to keep things simple, and she seemed to have a pleasant, enjoyable day.

Sometimes birthdays can get out of control with presents, party plans, and festivities. While I’d like to blame that on Pinterest, it seems this was an issue long before, based on my read-through of The Berenstain Bears: Too Much Birthday, copyright date 1986! I can get consumed in all the details of a beautiful table display, lots of perfectly wrapped gifts, and a slew of fun activities.

Thankfully, I was able to rein it in and focused on just a few simple, meaningful activities, and we ended up having such a fun, stress-free (though still tiring!) day.


Birthdays are a chance to speak worth into our children, and remind them that they are loved and that their existence matters. Birthdays can be a chance to uphold the truth that our children are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

In preparation for Elle’s birthday, I spent a lot of time pondering how to make it a joyful, affirming celebration, without stressing me out or spoiling her. We opted for a simple day – her cousin came over in the morning for a tea party, and then after naptime we went out for ice cream as a family and came home to watch a movie before bedtime. This enabled us to have the time and money to implement some of these special birthday ideas.

I want to be sure you don’t read through this list and think, “Okay, here’s another seven things to add to my to-do list.” Please don’t try to tackle all these things. Choose one (or none!) that work for your context. If you like working with photos and have a lot of them, choose an option that uses photos. On the other hand, if the idea of sorting through photos seems stressful to you… please don’t choose that option! The last thing I want is for you to feel stressed out about trying to make a birthday meaningful.

You may decide to cut back on something you’re already doing to allow the energy and budget for one of these ideas. For example, we didn’t buy our daughter any birthday presents, since we had a few keepsakes we wanted to pass on to her, and we knew other family members would give her presents. Therefore, I had some extra time I would have otherwise spent shopping and wrapping gifts, so I could do some of these other projects.

You are not a crummy parent or adult mentor if you don’t do all (or any) of these things! With that said, here are some of the ideas I came up with (we did some, but not all of these, yesterday) –


1. Create a photo slideshow with photos of the past year. 

Elle loved watching her video, and it was something special to do on her birthday. I used Windows Movie Maker to very simply create hers, but you could also use PowerPoint or even just put all the photos in a folder on your computer and then select Slideshow on the “Manage” tab. (Turning it into a video uses up more space, but makes it more permanent so you can easily watch it over and over).

I divide our digital photos into folders by month, so I just copied 10-20 photos from each month since she turned two. I put it into a new folder, dragged it into Windows Movie Maker, and added some music (purchased on iTunes) that was special to her this year (“Let It Go,” from Frozen, of course! and “Bless the Lord O My Soul” by Matt Redman).

I selected about 200 photos, which I thought was going to be too long, but ended up being just right. Each photo showed for about 2.5 seconds, and it lasted about nine minutes total.

This project took me about 3-4 hours total, spread out over a few different nights of choosing photos… I have used Movie Maker in the past, but am not super computer savvy.

I started this tradition last year, after reading the idea on Jen Lund’s blog, and it’s a tradition we’ll likely continue.


2. Make a photo book with photos of the child’s past year (or longer). 

The concept is basically the same… select photos from the child’s past year of life and drop them into an online photo book software (or print and slide into photo albums… but I like digital photo books so much better!)

I’ve seen this idea online but haven’t done it yet. You could create it ahead of time, and give it to your child as a birthday gift. I ran out of time to order it before Elle’s birthday, so I decided to wait until afterwards so I can include photos from all the way up to the day before her birthday.

I’ve never done this before, so I plan to make one book with photos from age 0, 1, and 2, and then hope to make it a yearly tradition after that, with just a single age in each book.

For simplicity, I’ll probably just do mostly photos without captions, but I love the idea of inserting some special Bible verses or quotes, and writing a letter at the beginning of the book, recapping the past year and highlighting a few lessons/reminders I’d like to share with Elle.


3. Look through old photos together on your child’s birthday. Pull out your child’s baby book (here is a great Christ-centered memory book of baby’s first year!), and look through any other photo albums you have from your child’s life.

If you have easy access to them, you could even pull out photos from when you were this age, and compare to life today.


4. Give keepsakes from your own life as a gift to your child. This year, almost all of our gifts for Elle were keepsakes from my own childhood: a small dollhouse, a few books in a series I enjoyed as a child, and a little drinking mug with the number 3 all over it. Not only did it save us money and space (since we already had these items stored in the closet, we’re not bringing anything new), but if gives something special and meaningful to our daughter.

Of course, you may not have memorabilia from your childhood, but you could still consider something that was special to you when you were young and purchase the same item for your child. (Check Ebay if it’s a hard to locate item).

Other keepsake/sentimental gifts could be:

– write a letter to your child, giving blessings, special Bible verses, or memories from the past year

– find a photo of yourself at this age and put in a frame side-by-side with a photo of your child at the same age.

– purchase an inexpensive journal, and write a note to your child. Give it to them, and ask them to write back to you sometime. (You’ll probably want to start with some easy, surface-level questions, to get your child comfortable with this method). You can pass the journal back and forth between the two of you. A plain notebook works, or if you are a mom/daughter pair, these two journals provide prompts to help inspire you: Just Between Us and My Mom and Me.


5. Say a prayer or blessing over your child on his birthday.  

Before you light the candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” take a moment to share a prayer or special blessing for your child.

Yesterday, we didn’t get to a special prayer in the chaos of getting food and cupcakes on the table, but we did pray for Elle’s upcoming year with her before she went to bed.

If you are at a loss for what to say, this blessing from Numbers 6:23-27 was originally for the people of Israel, and is now shared every Sunday in many Christian churches today… it might be perfect for your child’s birthday blessing. You could say something like, “[Child’s Name], in the year ahead, may the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift His countenance upon you and give you His peace.”


6. Give the gift of time – offer a “date” with you as one of your child’s birthday presents.

As you consider your child’s gifts, don’t feel like you have to purchase a bunch of items. One great (clutter-free!) gift is time spent with you. Consider what you’d like to do with your child… a visit to Starbucks or out for frozen yogurt? Go to the park and play catch? Go to the movies together? Bake cookies together at home?

Then turn that into something that can be “wrapped.” (I think this is more meaningful than a verbal promise to do something, and it also helps younger children who especially like to unwrap gifts.)

You could give a Starbucks or Yogurtland gift card, with a note that you’ll go their together. Or, a new baseball and a bag of Goldfish crackers to snack on during your park visit.  Or, a bag of chocolate chips and the recipe for baking cookies together.



7. Set up a day for your child to spend with some “adult mentors.” A woman at our church shared this idea with me a few years ago, and I’ve loved it ever since. Her granddaughter, Jessica, was turning 13, and so the parents set up a special day for her. They selected four or five important women in her life – aunts, older friends, her grandmother – and asked them each to spend a couple hours with Jessica on that day… for example, one woman invited her over for breakfast, another took her out to lunch. They each spent time with her, showing their love, and I would imagine, offered some wisdom as she became a teenager. At the end of the day, they all gathered together for dinner.

Beyond just talking and eating, some other ideas would be for the mentors and child to spend time together by going for a run, doing an activity like bowling or laser tag, going to a paint-your-own pottery place,  playing catch or going to the batting cages, or learning a skill like sewing or woodworking.

for adult mentors: Birthdays are a wonderful time to affirm the young people in your life in a culturally appropriate way – it is common to receive gifts, cards, and special celebrations from extended family and friends. Consider how you can use birthdays to speak Christ’s hope and grace into a young person you know. Check out the gift ideas above, or be sure to clear your calendar to attend the child’s birthday party (if invited). Talk to the parents about working together on a photo book or video (perhaps they can provide the photos and you can put it together?) Have fun celebrating a young person in your life!

**How do you celebrate birthdays for the young people in your life? Leave a comment below.