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40 Ways to Celebrate Your Birthday—or Any Other Occasion—Alone

Although Beverly Willett's party was canceled and she was by herself, she found ways to make her big day fuller than she ever imagined.

Editor’s Note: This being the last week in 2020, we’re re-running the three most-read stories of the year. This article—about things to do on your birthday alone—originally ran in April and is second on the list. Obviously, many of us have been marking big events without company or fanfare this year. We’re glad this story is helping people still make their milestone moments memorable. 


When I celebrated my birthday alone last spring, there was no shelter in place order where I live yet. But so many of us had already been curtailing our social activity, mostly to grocery store runs and an occasional walk. It’s amazing how different life can become in just a few weeks. When COVID hit, I had been out on the road promoting my recent memoir, speaking at a literary festival, and eating out at every meal. It’s a good thing I was already washing my hands constantly and bumping elbows.

But the frequency of social activity was still fairly high so I was thrilled to come home and catch up on my sleep. Not even all that disappointed either when four events in a row got called off after I returned. A week later, it was my birthday. The night before a friend who’d planned to cook me dinner called to cancel. Which was understandable. The reality began to sink in that this new way of life—sans touch and spent primarily indoors—might become the new normal for an unknown, long stretch of time.

I fell asleep wondering how I’d commemorate my birthday and woke up deciding to take it one moment at a time and see what happened. Here are the 40 ways I celebrated.

Read More: “Will I Survive This Divorce?” Beverly Willett Chronicles Her Journey in a New Memoir

Birthday Morning

On the morning of my special day I brewed a pot of gourmet coffee (1), added a candle to the lemon cake I’d bought the night before (2), and sang Happy Birthday to myself (3). 

The phone began to ring immediately and kept at it all day long. It’s been years since I indulged in so many long phone conversations—a dozen in one day (4)! Which made me realize how much texting pales by comparison. “Would you do me a favor and do a little dance for me on your birthday?” my buddy Sadie asked when she called. Of course I would! She was supposed to fly down from NYC for a visit the following weekend and of course couldn’t. But we agreed to reschedule.

“Love you,” I said at the end of our call (and all the others)(5). And then I did that little dance from the couch to the kitchen (6) on my way for more coffee.

A few years ago I took my haphazard morning meditations rogue and committed to praying every morning. The night before my birthday I invited Facebook “friends” to add their names to my prayer list. The list has grown to over 200 names. I began saying each name aloud on the morning of my birthday and have committed to doing so each morning until this is all over (7). Prayer feels even more powerful now.

I also play at least one (usually two) online games every morning, and my birthday was no different (8). I’ve always felt a tad guilty about wasting time like this until a good friend (who is uber responsible) admitted she does the same thing to wake up her grey cells. We even have the same current favorite—Evil Suduko!

Sometime before lunch (salad and the other slice of lemon cake), I crossed cancelled events off my calendar (9) and added new ones (10). New ones during the pandemic, you ask? Like the Italians, we have to be creative to help ourselves and each other stay sane. I scheduled a walk in the neighborhood with a friend, a meeting at the park to drink the champagne I never drank when my book came out, a Facetime chat, and a virtual Mass on Sunday (all with appropriate physical distancing of course).

The Afternoon

Here’s what my afternoon looked like. I weeded the small patch of land in front of my house (11), tackled a chunk of my tax return (12), recharged the battery on my Kindle so I could start on the book my daughter gave me (13), brainstormed about ways to keep a non-profit board I volunteer for stay afloat during these tough times (14), and wrote three thank you letters (15-17). While combing through the mail threatening to overtake my kitchen counter (18), I discovered an old-fashioned letter from a friend! I figured the people I wanted to thank would also appreciate receiving handwritten notes too. And damned if I didn’t feel positively productive.

Throughout the day, I listened to my favorite music—the birds singing outside (19). Ever since I moved south, I’ve been obsessed with listening to them. With less activity, it’s extra quiet now. And on my birthday, they sang all day long.

Before COVID-19 struck, people were announcing their breaks from social media. For me, it didn’t seem like the time so I ramped it up (20) in order to spread the love.

I’ve never been a napper, but I was plum wiped out from so much activity by mid-afternoon that I decided to take a nap (21). Before I conked out for two hours, I filled my new diffuser with essential lavender oil (22) and decided to pay my birthday forward by ordering a gift on-line for a far-away friend. (23). (I just knew he was going to love the Savannah pralines I sent!) We Americans are so used to buying whatever we want whenever we want, whether or not we can afford it. I had the urge to buy myself something for my special day, but decided to delay my instant gratification (24) and still support one of my local businesses (25).

Friends dropping off a gift and card woke me up. I put on one of my favorite dresses (just because I have nowhere to go doesn’t mean I can’t look nice) (26), applied a quick Green Tea Mask (27), and groomed my eyebrows (28). When the doorbell rang, I opened the door and talked to my friends through the doorway while they stood on my stoop. Gosh how we laughed and gabbed, just like usual (29). The only thing we couldn’t do— that we wanted to—was hug. But one day we will and oh how much richer and meaningful those hugs will be.

The Evening

things to do on your birthday alone

The author blowing out her birthday candles on a previous birthday.

Before dark, I set off on an hour and a half stroll to nowhere (30). The sidewalks were practically empty, the birds sang, and I got some exercise. I smiled at the few people still outdoors after dusk (31) and tussled the head of a sweet-eyed dog (32) I met along the way.

I cooked salmon for dinner (33), used the good china and one of the good glasses (34-35), and stopped to smell the roses (36) I’d bought for myself at Kroger for $3.99 two days before. Before binging on the latest episodes of another guilty pleasure, Prodigal Son (37). (Dark comedy-dramas help take the edge off right now, at least for me.)

I’m a freelance writer so I work at home. But I didn’t get much business done on my big day other than scribbling some notes for future articles. It was my big day after all.

Tired out, I still found the energy to vacuum my bedroom carpet (38) and change the sheets (39). Because nothing feels more luxurious than slipping into bed with fresh sheets at the end of a long day. And then I gave thanks (40) because I’m still here and so are you if you’re reading this.

The next morning a friend phoned to ask me how my day had gone. I told her that my birthday was fuller than I ever imagined it could be, especially at a time like this.

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020. 


Beverly Willett is the author of Disassembly Required, a memoir about overcoming fear and loss during tough times.

By Beverly Willett


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