What does it mean to celebrate?
I turned 25 last weekend, and like anyone who’s enjoyed a birthday in isolation, I got to think a bit about what actually makes a celebration.
As my birthday drew closer, I thought about how I wanted to spend the day. I’m not really one to make a big fuss on birthdays and I was happy to have a quiet one this year given the circumstances. Still, with every day feeling like groundhog day in isolation, I thought it would be nice to at least do some small things to mark my birthday as different from the days around it. To mark it as a celebration.
But what makes a celebration? There were a few things that helped make the day feel like a real celebration:
It was shared with people I love. I got to start the day with my church family (who sang happy birthday to me over Zoom before our service and even brought candles!) and then got to end the day with my biological family, with a few special friends in between.
It was marked by meaningful traditions. Things like singing ‘happy birthday’ and getting my annual birthday freebies (thanks, Gelatissimo!) helped tie this singular day into a bigger history of similar celebrations that are even more meaningful as a collective narrative. Hearing my church family sing ‘happy birthday’ over Zoom was nice, but it was especially moving to hear the cacophony of everyone singing in a different key and at a different speed (exacerbated by internet lag) exactly like the chaos of a real-life ‘happy birthday.’ Even though I was alone in my bedroom looking at a screen, this tradition helped me connect this moment meaningfully to all the real-life ‘happy birthdays’ I’ve seen over the years and helped me feel connected to the bigger storyline of celebrations that this ritual reminds me of.
It featured words explicitly expressing what we valued. Every card I received in the mail, every Facebook post, every text message and every phone call was meaningful to me. While many were simple one-liners, some of the messages were very thoughtfully written, expressing how someone valued our friendship. We celebrated those things by naming them explicitly.
It was fun. I had a great time. Whether it was playing a competitive family tournament of Scattergories or collecting free ice cream, we celebrated by doing things we loved, laughing and creating the sort of memories (and silly photos) that we’ll one day look back on with nostalgia.
It’s easy enough to conceptualise what celebration looks like when it comes to birthdays. But what does it look like to celebrate singleness?
I hear people saying more and more frequently that we in the church should celebrate singleness more. Christians hold singleness in high regard theologically—but we don’t always know how to do this practically. If singleness really is a thing to aspire as much as or even more than marriage as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, how is that reflected in our celebrations? I’ve said myself that we should celebrate singleness, but other than telling the odd story of single role models I look up to, I haven’t really worked out how else to do that in practice.
We say that we as a community celebrate single people, but when do those celebrations actually happen? Tolerating or even valuing something isn’t the same thing as celebrating it. We may generically value married people in our community 365 days a year, but we also specifically celebrate them when we announce a new engagement or throw a wedding party. Those celebrations create special moments that reflect our deeper values. Our churches might value single people—but how are we celebrating them?
What meaningful traditions do we observe that celebrate single people?
What milestones are there in the life of a single person that we can celebrate?
What opportunities do we have to explicitly put into words how much we value our single brothers and sisters?
Because I’m not sure it’s enough to settle for a general feel-good vibe. When a couple get engaged, we don’t just go on with our lives with general good vibes towards them: we declare the news to each other, announce it from the pulpit and clap and cheer when we hear it. We hug the lucky couple and sit down to hear ‘the story’ – a story that they’ve told a hundred times by now but still love to share with the people they love. We throw a party and feast and drink. We write engagement cards, give presents and make gushy speeches.
How are we celebrating singleness?
I mostly write this post to pose the question rather than the answer. I’d love to start this conversation and hear your stories and ideas. I’m still new to thinking about this myself, but to get the conversation started, here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about, mostly based off thoughtful things I’ve seen other people doing. Let’s have a celebration!
Celebrate the milestones everybody shares – not just married people
When I was a teenager, I realised that as a celibate gay Christian I might never have the big wedding speech moment where everyone you love most is in the same room and your best mate makes a cringeworthy speech about how special/terrible you are. This has always been one of my favourite wedding traditions; I love hearing embarrassing stories about my friends and celebrating the person they are. But it got me thinking: when else do we celebrate someone for who they are? Most of the public celebrations revolve around adding someone else to their lives, like engagement parties, weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, etc. But when do we actually celebrate someone just for who they are?
Probably the closest thing would be milestone birthdays. The only other time I could think of when someone would give a speech publicly celebrating someone’s life (other than a wedding) would be at their funeral or possibly a 21st birthday. Now I know big, extravagant 21st birthdays aren’t really in vogue in Australia, at least not in the lower middle-class culture I grew up in. Neither of my older brothers had a special 21st party. But as I talked with my family about how I might never get that ‘wedding speech moment’, I realised I would really appreciate a special milestone party for my 21st. It felt weird and awkward to suggest something so foreign to our family traditions, and at times I wondered if it was selfish to even ask for my own celebration, but my parents were very understanding and backed me 100%. So we planned a special celebration.
It wasn’t overly extravagant, but it was special. My grandparents and some special friends travelled interstate to be there. Almost everyone who had a significant part in my life was in the same room for the first time ever. Some dear friends gave mushy speeches including a rap over video from the Netherlands where my friend was on exchange. My friends conspired together to get me a particularly generous gift of a brand-new smartphone which still serves me well and allows me to stay closely connected to those same friends with regular phone calls. My sister organised a scrapbook with thoughtful notes and pictures from nearly all of my friends (a huge undercover operation that only she could pull off!), and I still go back to the words in that book and feel the love. My parents were particularly thoughtful. Understanding that I didn’t expect to ever have a wedding, they generously contributed financially beyond what they would have done for an ordinary birthday. We had an understanding that in lieu of a big wedding reception, my 21st would be my ‘big moment,’ and they gave generously to make it feel special. I’m so grateful to have family and friends that understood that and made it easy to celebrate. My only regret is that I didn’t treat it like more of a special occasion and ask my parents to give speeches as well. Looking back, I would have liked that. The formality felt foreign and even uncomfortable to me, but it was worth it to have a celebration that I will always look back on with warm, fuzzy feelings of gratitude.
In many ways, my sexual orientation made it easier for me to plan for singleness. Not many 20-year-olds have clarity on whether they should expect lifelong singleness like I did! But I think by celebrating these milestones that everyone shares, no one misses out. Someone might get married later in life and have another celebration of their marriage. But that’s no reason not to celebrate the person’s individual life and what they mean to us in the meantime.
Another big milestone that is hardly celebrated at all is a young person’s first step into adulthood as they leave home and forge an independent life. Apart from some minor occasion with their household family, this isn’t really a milestone that gets celebrated. But when I look at it objectively, that’s a HUGE developmental milestone, and a great opportunity to celebrate someone’s life and personhood. It’s also a great opportunity to shower them with practical gifts at a time they need it most.
I’ve sometimes thought the tradition of giving household items as wedding gifts seems like a vestige from the past. These days, by the time two adults marry, it’s likely that one or both of them have lived independently for a number of years. In joining their lives together they probably have duplicate sets of cutlery, bed linen, kitchen appliances etc. And that’s before all the wedding gifts. Meanwhile the 17-year-old who just moved interstate for uni is probably eating microwaved noodles out of a frisbee while they wait for the next Centrelink payment so they can afford their own plates and a toaster. I’m not saying we ditch the beautiful tradition of generous wedding gifts, but if we shift the emphasis a little bit, we could powerfully meet the practical needs of so many people at the time they need it most. Again, if this is a milestone everyone shares, nobody misses out, married or single. We would also send a strong message to this person that their life and their milestones are worth celebrating for their own sake, and they don’t need another person to ‘complete’ them to give us cause for celebration. You are a whole person, and you are worth celebrating for who you are right now. [As a side note, imagine how much stronger marriages would be if each person entering marriage was already so well resourced in these practical and relational needs, already feeling celebrated as a complete and whole person before joining themselves to another.]
I imagine there are plenty of other milestones we could celebrate too: graduation, first job, first home, etc. As a Christian, I live in a community that desires to celebrate each other publicly in our community, so perhaps many of these milestones that would normally be a private celebratory meal with family could become special community moments where we share in each other’s joy.
This is a weird one and I’m still wrapping my head around how to approach this well. With Mother’s Day happening tomorrow, I’ve given some thought to its place in this conversation. It’s tricky because I know these days can be very painful for lots of single people who don’t have kids of their own.
But I wonder, as we celebrate the immense value of parent figures on these days and acknowledge the hours of unpaid labour parents pour into raising children in a loving environment… maybe there’s an opportunity to acknowledge the unpaid labour of the single men and women in our community who also work tirelessly to help raise these kids in our community. When I think of people I know who have made a big impact on kids, I think of people like my friend Gemma who selflessly balances emergency/relief care for kids in the foster system while also working a full-time job, and all without a partner to share the load. Or my friend Mel who has spent years cultivating meaningful relationships with the kids in my church family through volunteering at kids church, babysitting, and just being a good friend to the tiny folk. I know both Gemma and Mel have had a tremendous impact on these kids and their families because I see the way the kids are growing up enriched for their nurturing and care. I also know that part of the reason they’re able to serve so meaningfully in this way is because of their singleness. When singleness opens doors to meaningful relationships, it’s worth not just celebrating the single people but also celebrating the singleness itself as a good gift from God. I know what I’ve described is not the same thing as mothering, so maybe Mother’s Day isn’t the perfect fit to acknowledge this. But when else? We have the privilege of doing life in a community full of non-traditional relationships where all sorts of people are valued members of the family regardless of the nuclear biological ‘family unit.’ Maybe it’s time we explored non-traditional ways to celebrate those non-traditional relationships too.
Do you have other ideas about celebrating singleness?