I’m once again striding boldly into the dangerous, churning waters of Lenten “breaks.” This time to answer a mailbag question . . .
Hi Kendra! My youngest is celebrating his first birthday next month and I’m wondering how to celebrate a birthday in Lent. I guess a Sunday would be our best bet. But I’m working around my husband’s work schedule (which includes nights and weekends) and our son’s godparents’ very busy schedules. So, if I couldn’t make a Sunday work, would you still go ahead and serve cake and treats? What do you think about a birthday party on Holy Saturday? I’m thinking maybe a brunch with a bunny theme. Would that be okay? (I would only go bunnies on Holy Saturday. Otherwise, I’d choose a different theme.) One factor that puts me in favor of Holy Saturday (other than the idea of a super cute bunny brunch!) is the (hopefully!) warmer weather could allow the kids to play outside. What are your thoughts? Maureen
Update 2019: While reiterating that this is NOT Canon Law or anything, and good Catholics can have different opinions on the matter, our family practice has evolved a bit from what I’ve written below.
Our family’s voluntary Lenten disciplines for ten years now have included giving up treats (except for Sundays and solemnities). We went back and forth as a family for a few years on how to handle special days that fall during Lent. There is a case to be made, for namedays at least, that these could be celebrated as a solemnity for the individual, or for the whole family if the individual is the head of the household, as feast days get bumped up to solemnities for the members of a parish on the parish’s patron’s feast day, and the same is true of a town or city on its patron’s feast day. But that seems like a bit of a stretch in the home. Also, it doesn’t really engender the kind of family camaraderie I’m looking for if only one kid gets a treat on his nameday and everyone else gets to watch.
The only people whose birthdays appear on the liturgical calendar are Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist, and of those MARY’S birthday isn’t even a solemnity, so I certainly don’t think mine counts as a solemnity. So, all that to say, we no longer abandon our voluntary Lenten disciplines for family three special days that fall during Lent. But that doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate them! We do. The special day person gets to choose a meal, meat free if called for. We’ll do a family activity like a board game or a hike. But no treats on the day, because it’s Lent, and Lent is for real around here, and Tierneys are tough. If it’s a birthday, we’ll have a party with friends and a cake on a Sunday.
There isn’t an official church teaching on this, so you get to go with your gut on this one. For our family, we do celebrate birthdays with cake and treats, even if they fall during Lent. Just like specific religious orders celebrate particular days as special feasts for their order, we treat birthdays, name days, or baptism days as special family feast days . . . even if they fall during Lent.
It’s not a free-for-all day. We mostly maintain the rest of our voluntary Lenten disciplines, but if it’s a “special day” — either one of the liturgical calendar feast days that falls during Lent, or a family birthday — we have a special dinner and a dessert.
But not every family does. My grandmother will turn 95 this year, and she’s never in her life had a birthday cake. She had a sister with juvenile diabetes, and her birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, which always falls during Lent. So, no birthday cake. Ever. And it doesn’t seem to have bothered her any. Still, I’m not sure every kid would be as understanding.
We actually don’t have any spring birthdays in our immediate family, but my oldest daughter’s birthday is in early February, and it once fell on Ash Wednesday. We weren’t going to have a special dinner and treats on THAT day, so we just celebrated early. If you’re not comfortable serving treats on a regular Lenten day, you could always celebrate on a Sunday.
Every Lent, the kids get invited to a couple of birthday parties for friends. We always gratefully accept the invitations and show up ready to have fun. We eat the food that’s set before us, without being gluttons, of course. But ruining other people’s birthdays is NOT one of our voluntary Lenten disciplines.
Many Catholics have conflated giving up sugar with the observation of Lent. But Lent is about so much more than sweets, anyway. There are TONS of other ways to grow and better myself during Lent (here are sixty-six of them). If I’m living my Lent as a time to really try to perfect myself — yelling less, praying more, engaging with my children, attending daily Mass — there’s just no way a birthday cake is going to derail that.
That said, I, personally, don’t throw parties on Holy Saturday. Again, this isn’t an official doctrinal thing, it’s just my opinion. But it’s because that’s the one day of the year . . . that we really feel Our Lord’s absence. He’s absent from tabernacles. There’s no Mass celebrated (as with on Good Friday). In our home we use it as a day of preparation and quiet. And just because there are so many secular egg hunts and whatnot on Holy Saturday, our kids just know that, as a family culture thing, Tierneys just don’t participate in that stuff.
The weekend before is Palm Sunday, which would be a great day for a celebratory brunch. You could decorate with palm fronds, and . . . um, donkeys? Up to you.
Update: Maureen wrote back to point out that another drawback of having a party on Holy Saturday, would be the need to prepare for it on Good Friday.
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Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.
If you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.