In a strange twist, a pandemic birthday party might actually be the easiest party you ever throw.
A birthday party under normal circumstances takes hours of preparation: cooking and cleaning, decorating and primping. This year, you only have to get dressed from the waist up and tidy the corner of your home that people can see on video chat. Honestly, bonus.
You can also take advantage of the new format to include far-flung family and friends who might not have been able to join an in-person gathering.
A socially distant birthday does, however, call for a dash of corniness and a pinch of magical thinking (and remember, if you are not up for it, it's fine to sit this one out). But you can, for sure, make it feel real.
This is the least fun but the most important part: Make sure people have clear instructions on how they can attend.
Zoom works, but you'll be limited to a 40-minute trial if you do it for free. You could also try a Google Hangout, which is free and unlimited, although maybe slightly glitchier. If you download an extension from the Chrome website you can make your screen into a grid of everyone's face.
On the invitation, put the start time (with your time zone, if you're inviting people from different regions), as well as detailed instructions for how to join the call.
If you're inviting relatives who are not so savvy with tech, you could try to set up a call beforehand, so they have a trial run. Review steps like muting and unmuting. It will take a few minutes, but it will help with connecting during the party.
Also, make it easy for guests to gracefully and honestly decline your invitation, as some people just may not be in the party mood.
At the end, take a picture, even if it's a screen grab
As host, call on people. It admittedly might feel a little forced. But organic group conversation over video chat is almost impossible, and everyone will be glad to have a chance to speak.
One strategy is to ask everyone to prepare a memory, a roast or their dad-est joke. You could also ask people to say something they're thankful for, or looking forward to. Helping your friends find joy in their lives right now might be the best gift you can give back to them.
You could, also, ask them to get dressed.
"If you don't tell them, they're going to show up in their pajamas," said Seri Kertzner, the owner and founder of Little Miss Party Planner, a New York City event planning, styling and content creation company. "It just gives a reason to celebrate. It makes it more fun."
If your friends have a flair for the dramatic, try a theme. It'll be entertaining, if nothing else, to see how people make do with what they have in their homes. For adults, a decade theme or maybe a color palette. For children, maybe trot out their Halloween costumes. Why not? This is a pandemic. There are no rules.
Or, ask people to spend some time primping, maybe even put on their fanciest clothing. It might feel silly sitting in front of a laptop in a ball gown or bow tie, but it might also give everyone an opportunity to play dress-up.
If you are comfortable, and if your local government permits it, you could get together while staying apart. Some suburban revelers have been doing drive-by gatherings, a procession of SUVs there to wave.
You could ask your friends to tailgate at a distance. Have everyone bring a lawn chair, a snack and a drink. Set up outside - either in your own driveway or backyard, or in a parking lot or park. Be extra, extra careful. But if you stay far apart, you should not endanger each other.
Even though you might be looking at the screen, you do still have a body and you do still exist in a three-dimensional space. (This can be tough to remember right now.)
So make sure there's something sweet. A whole birthday cake might be depressing, but desserts can be good for one person, too.
If you want to relax, call a local small bakery. It could use a boost and will appreciate the business.
You could also ask all your guests to make the same thing. Send out a recipe at least a week in advance, so they can stock up on their grocery run. If you're of age, you could add a cocktail to your snack.
You should try to set up a party, even if you're the only one in the room. Clean up a corner of your space, and pull out some colorful decorations for yourself.
If you are a guest, maybe give decorations as a present.
Or take the initiative and set up the party for them. Work out the logistics, so they do not have to think about it.
As for presents, for an older relative, you could record a virtual scrapbook. Ask family and friends to record videos of themselves in advance, so you can compile a series of greetings for them to play a few times during the day.
You could also throw them a surprise birthday party. Ask them to video conference with you, and then surprise them with a gallery view that includes the whole family.
They're what makes life feel sweet, and life could use some extra sugar these days.
Start by talking to them about how this year is going to be different. This can be an adventure, something to look forward to, even if they can't see their friends in person. You can build a fort at home together, or try for an ambitious craft project. Try some funky baking project, or give them "magic powers" for the day.
For the party, keep it short and sweet. One hour is probably the maximum amount of time, so make sure you give your guests both a start time and end time. The other parents on the call will appreciate it.
Consider hiring entertainment. There are still music classes and faerie entertainers, magicians and clowns, and they offer virtual shows. (The website Mommy Poppins has a good list.) A Connecticut-based music school, Jumpin' Jams, has started livestreaming birthday parties for babies and toddlers from the owners' living room. The wheels on the bus can, in fact, go 'round and 'round.
Or, send every house a kit for a craft project. Be kind to other parents - think of age-appropriate and not messy endeavors. Maybe try for a Lego kit, or have everyone draw a favorite animal. After a few minutes, ask the children to show their projects.