Anna-Leena Harkonen




Happy Birthday!

My ex-husband and I were not into celebrating our birthdays. Too much hassle. We didn’t buy each other birthday presents, or Christmas gifts, for that matter.

I remember that one spring on my birthday, I was secretly waiting for a call from him. He did call, but after chatting with him for a while, I realized he had no intention of wishing me a happy birthday.

I COULDN’T HELP but address the issue.

“May I ask a personal question?”

“Sure,” he said, sounding good-humored.

“How old is your wife?”


“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I forgot.”

“So I noticed.”

“Happy birthday.”


MY MOTHER TURNED my childhood birthdays into spectacles.

She cut out play money from paper for the guests to buy candy and little toys in a kiosk she had set up in the living room. The guests took turns being the seller.

There was never a time limit at these parties. The party would continue until the last guest walked out the door, feeling nauseous from the sugar rush.

My friends still reminisce about those parties. Any celebration you can come up with in adulthood simply pales in comparison.

SURPRISE PARTIES are not suited to the Finnish mindset. We always want to prepare mentally for things.

I know I would be embarrassed if I were to come home, tired and disheveled, turn on the lights, and be greeted by a swarm of people yelling “Surprise!” in a sea of balloons.

SOME PEOPLE celebrate in silence. For others, nothing is enough.

A friend of mine held four parties when she turned 50: the first for immediate family, the second for colleagues and business acquaintances, the third for relatives, and the fourth for friends—and judging by the number of guests, for everyone she had ever met in her life.

She should have booked a soccer stadium instead of a restaurant. She admitted that she may have “slightly narcissistic traits.”

Another friend thought that her 50th birthday was a good reason to book a staycation and bawl alone in a hotel room.

FINDING A GOOD birthday gift is tricky.

A friend of mine received a burl table from her relatives. It looked like intestines—so hideous that she kept it in the basement and brought it out only when the relatives visited her.

Another friend was given ballroom dance lessons for his 40th birthday. He took it as an insult and never used the gift card.

Anna-Leena Harkonen

Adapted from a collection published by the Booksellers Association of Finland

Published with permission from the author

New Terrain Press 2024. All rights reserved.

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