In March, Lucas Bowerman learned he’d be finishing his senior year of high school without all his buddies by his side. Soon after, prom was canceled. And his spring job shadowing program was called off. As COVID-19 was putting a damper on his last moments as a high school student, his parents weren’t about to let it ruin his 18th birthday, too.

“The kid was definitely grieving his loss of having a senior spring, and so we knew we had to do something special,” says Lucas’s mom, Hilary Bonta. “It took us about a week to plan for it, which ended up becoming this uplifting mission for us all.”

In the time of a pandemic, birthdays are never going to feel “normal.” But while stay-at-home orders prohibit parties, there are still ways to salvage some fun. And, as Bonta says, it can provide a much-needed mental break for everyone involved.

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Whether through a virtual party, drive-by parade, or over-the-top decorations, all you need is a little creativity.

Make a feast

For Lucas, the key was making a full-blown feast, an all-hands-on-deck affair for the West Philly family of four.

“Lucas loves to eat, so we decided we’d basically stuff the kid until he couldn’t walk,” says Bonta.

Lucas chose a restaurant for takeout (Dim Sum Garden). Then came figuring out how to make a cake without half the usual ingredients available at the grocery store. It’s a classic pandemic challenge, and it took a well-researched hunt for Oreos and multiple cake pan exchanges with neighbors through the mailbox. Later, a contactless steamer pot drop-off was arranged, too, as the family realized what at-home dim sum actually entailed. Every individual dish, which came frozen, needed to first be cooked at home.

For her son Lucas's 18th birthday, Hilary Bonta crafted a three-layer vanilla-Oreo cake, a process that required a well-researched search for Oreos and multiple mailbox cake pan exchanges with the neighbors.
Courtesy Hilary Bonta
For her son Lucas's 18th birthday, Hilary Bonta crafted a three-layer vanilla-Oreo cake, a process that required a well-researched search for Oreos and multiple mailbox cake pan exchanges with the neighbors.

By April 19, when Lucas’s birthday arrived, five stove burners, two ovens, and a microwave were warming up dozens of dumplings, steamed buns, and scallion pancakes — each with their own instructions. A three-layer, vanilla-Oreo cake awaited for dessert, the fruit of Bonta’s first serious baking endeavor.

“It became a project, a project that was outside of our expertise, and I’ll say we’ll definitely be going back to Chinatown post-pandemic,” says Bonta. “But this brought the whole family together to work on something that would make Lucas feel truly special. I don’t think it’s something any of us will ever forget.”

Food is an easy way to provide comfort in what’s otherwise a stressful time, whether it’s a meal from a favorite restaurant, a cake from a beloved bakery, or a dish from a nostalgic childhood memory. Turn it into a project, and it’s bound to create memories.

One way to celebrate a pandemic birthday? Copious amounts of food. For Lucas Bowerman, turning 18, and his family, this meant crafting a massive at-home dim sum feast.
Courtesy Hilary Bonta
One way to celebrate a pandemic birthday? Copious amounts of food. For Lucas Bowerman, turning 18, and his family, this meant crafting a massive at-home dim sum feast.

The new surprise party

For Kristen Kurtis of South Philly, her birthday “project” was homemade cheesesteaks, which she’s loved since she was a kid. “We made our own chewy hoagie rolls, and then used Steak-umms and Velveeta cheese,” says Kurtis, who celebrated her 35th this past month. “I’m not competing with Tony Lukes or anything, but it was pretty great.”

But the real surprise: While they were making the hoagie rolls, Kurtis’s shirt dusted with flour, her husband pulled her out onto the balcony. Down below sat her brother-in-law and his wife, waiting to greet her.

“They were shouting happy birthday from lawn chairs they set up on the sidewalk,” recalls Kurtis.

Later, Kurtis heard from other friends and family through surprise videos her husband coordinated.

“I think we’re all a little low on energy these days, so to see the extra effort everyone went through made me feel so full of love,” says Kurtis. “It was honestly a really lovely day, and a nice calming moment in the midst of everything being so weird.”

For Kristen Kurtis' 35th birthday, she and her husband made cheesesteaks, complete with homemade hoagie rolls. And for dessert? A homemade cake.
Courtesy Kristen Kurtis
For Kristen Kurtis' 35th birthday, she and her husband made cheesesteaks, complete with homemade hoagie rolls. And for dessert? A homemade cake.

Drive-by greetings and parades

In times where we’re all feeling socially isolated, small gestures like a video recording or five-minute hello from afar can make a huge impact. Drive-by parades have quickly become one of the most popular forms of this. Soon, Gray Meckley, turning 17, will get to experience it firsthand.

More than a dozen of Meckley’s friends and family are gearing up to make circles around her cul-de-sac in Villanova next week.

“They’ll drive past our house screaming celebrations, honking their horns. One family’s going to have a trailer with people cheering,” says Julia, 18, Meckley’s sister, party planner, and quarantine-partner-in-crime. “I just want her to know how really loved she is.”

When in doubt, decorate

Julia also plans to stake 60 bright pink flamingos across her family’s yard. In between the inanimate birds, a 10-foot-banner will display Meckley’s photo.

“She’s just the most special and fun person I know, and I want to show her that,” says Julia. “I think 60 flamingos will get the point across.”

Take a walk through Philadelphia, and it’s easy to spot birthday decorations. Balloons adorn front doors. Giant “Happy Birthday” signs hang in windows. And vibrant chalk displays color otherwise empty sidewalks.

“I’ve done as many as seven chalk drawings in one day. I’m busy almost every day,” says Stefanie Heron-Birl, owner of Birl Girl Designs Face Painting, who’s been chalking pavement across the region for special occasions.

Stefanie Heron-Birl, former face painter now chalk drawer because of social distancing, creating a drawing on the driveway of Kate Semon's house on Allerton Road in West Chester on Thursday morning. This drawing is for Radek Semon to help celebrate his 15th birthday.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Stefanie Heron-Birl, former face painter now chalk drawer because of social distancing, creating a drawing on the driveway of Kate Semon's house on Allerton Road in West Chester on Thursday morning. This drawing is for Radek Semon to help celebrate his 15th birthday.

Before the pandemic, Heron-Birl ran a face painting business. Now she’s pivoted to chalk art. Prices for displays start at $45, with recent designs ranging from a smiling Elmo for a 2-year-old to an image of a crab holding a mug of beer in celebration of a man’s 50th.

“It’s really just another way to make your day feel more special,” says Heron-Birl. “And it’s great if you’re planning a parade — I usually face the art towards the street so people can see it as they drive by.”

Virtual parties

Of course, you don’t have to leave your house to see loved ones these days. Video apps like Zoom, Houseparty, and Google Hangouts are more popular than ever, and let you throw a large bash in a time that makes that otherwise impossible.

A virtual party can be simple: Everyone hangs out with a drink or cupcake in hand, catching up and singing “Happy Birthday.” (Singing it for your best pals, or hearing it from the people you love, feels 100% better than humming it repeatedly during routine hand-washing).

You could throw in a few rounds of games, like Pictionary, or create a surprise choreographed group dance.

To level it up, try creating a theme. For avid Phillies’ fan Tim Mingle, this meant designing an extensive baseball-centric Zoom party for his 7-year-old son, Noa.

For his just-turned-7-year-old son Noa (center), Tim Mingle created a baseball-themed Zoom party with more than a dozen of Noa's friends and classmates.
Courtesy Tim Mingle
For his just-turned-7-year-old son Noa (center), Tim Mingle created a baseball-themed Zoom party with more than a dozen of Noa's friends and classmates.

“I probably drove around for five hours dropping off these little Happy-Meal-like baseball packages out front of all his friends’ houses,” says Mingle.

Inside were old-school baseball cards, temporary baseball tattoos, Phillies activity sheets, Cracker Jack boxes, baseball bingo cards, and a baseball party hat. He also delivered individually boxed baseball-iced cupcakes.

That afternoon, 16 kids joined a Zoom hangout to play games, and do a scavenger hunt where kids had to retrieve “mommy and daddy’s dirty socks.”

“No one ever plans for a birthday party like this, but it ended up being a fun and memorable distraction for both him and me,” says Mingle. “You can only keep first graders on a video call for so long, but he loved it — he didn’t want it to end.”