Sarah Aissa woke up on Jan. 9 as she does every year on her birthday — to her mom playing her the “Yo Gabba Gabba” birthday song by the Ting Tings. Then she saw the Happy Birthday banner, her baby book and her birth certificate, which mom Jackie, 44, put out while she was sleeping.
Jackie and Matt Aissa of Amityville do this for each of their three children — Hannah, 13, Ethan, 11, and Sarah, who just turned 10. Jackie, a college bursar, changes her Facebook photo to her child’s face for the day and hangs a “Happy Birthday” flag outside their home.
Lots of Long Island families have birthday traditions, and it’s never too late to tap one of their ideas for your own family. Here are other ways parents mark their children’s progression through childhood:
A treasure hunt
On the night before each of her two children’s birthdays, Monica Blair, 49, who works in corporate risk for a bank, hides four to six clues that lead to presents. “I used to try to rhyme, but it gets really hard,” Blair says. “Some years they get stumped because I’m a little cleverer than the norm.”
The first clue is always waiting on the dining room table. Blair makes sure clues alternate upstairs and downstairs and even outside, and she and her husband, Gary, enjoy watching as Kaya, 13, or Kali, 16, run from clue to clue, trailed by their chocolate lab Koda and yellow lab Mia. Says Kaya: “I remember one year she said, ‘I clean your clothes, but you never do,’ and the clue was in the laundry room. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like you have to work for your present, and the dogs are running after you.”
Mini room makeovers
Natalie Cange of Valley Stream says her tradition may "seem silly," but that her three kids love it — every year on their birthdays they get new sheets and a comforter for their bedrooms. Last year on his birthday, for instance, Emmanuel, 7, was surprised with Power Ranger sheets.
Cange, who manages a family construction business, changes the bedding while the kids are at school and they discover the new look when they arrive home. "It's like a mini-makeover in their room," she says. Her daughter, Dara, 14, may get new sheets and comforter in a baby blue and pink pattern to match her walls, and son Justin, 16, will have green incorporated into his. "I know what they like," Cange says of choosing the bedding for them. And, the kids always wake up on their birthdays to their bedrooms filled with balloons, Cange says.
Steven Schombs of East Northport has four kids ranging from 11 to 17, and on each of their birthdays he does a daddy-and-child all-you-can-eat, you-pick-the-spot breakfast before school. He started in 2004, when his oldest was 3 years old and in preschool with a visit to IHOP. “He just had a blast,” Schombs says.
He's added each child when they entered preschool. Evan, who turned 14 on Jan. 14, picked Sweet Mama’s in Northport for his birthday breakfast this year, comically ordering the decaf coffee he’s been asking for every year since he was about 6. Even though the annual breakfast entails waking up super early, "it's worth it," Evan says.
Dorothy Santana, 49, of North Babylon, founder of the Latina Moms of Long Island network, also focuses on the first meal of the day. She has a “Breakfast Birthday Party” for each of her four children — ages 17, 15, 12 and 9. “I want them to feel celebrated and special from the minute they wake up,” she says. Santana puts a candle in a stack of chocolate or chocolate chip pancakes, and brings out the feted child’s keepsakes such as their sonogram photos, artwork and writing from their younger years, and more “to see the progression of how they’re growing,” she says.
Oral and written reflections
CarolAnn Falcone, 38, a widowed mother and paralegal from Malverne, marks not just the first day of her son Michael’s new age, but also the last day of the old one. “Every year on the last night of that age, I talk about all the good things that happened,” she says.
This year, Michael turned 6 in August, just after completing kindergarten. “I asked him, ‘What did you like about being 5?’ He said, ‘I like that school ended,’” Falcone says, laughing. She also asks him to predict what he expects to experience during the new age. “I try not to get emotional,” she says.
Anna Cullen, 44, a social worker from Lynbrook, has kept a birthday journal for her daughter, Maya Cullen-Conyers, 13, since Maya turned 1. She'll write her daughter a message, and also pass it to family and friends who are celebrating Maya's birthday with her so they can write in it as well. Maya can see the progression of friends' handwriting and stories about experiences they've shared. "I like it a lot, because I get to see what my family writes about me. My mom writes a big paragraph every year and tells me all the things that happened," Maya says.
When Danielle and Matthew Amore’s oldest child was turning 3 and able to talk in full sentences, Danielle, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother from West Babylon, launched a tradition of taking Sophia to a Build-A-Bear Workshop to make a bear with a voice option that allows the creator to record a message such as, “My name is Sophia and I’m 3 years old.” In addition to her age, each year Sophia adds something she loves to do. Sophia is 8 now.
The Amores have added daughter Savannah, 6, to the tradition, and plan to start it with son Chase, 1, once he can talk. “We line them up sometimes,” Danielle says of the stuffed animals, “and they listen to how small they sounded and how their voices sound now.”
Other families choose other items to collect each year. Elizabeth Lebowitz, 42, a teacher from Hewlett, buys her daughter Alexis, now 6, a book featuring her name. “We try to find books that are a birthday theme,” Lebowitz says.
A doughnut kickoff
Every year on their birthdays, Michelle and Richard Devine of Ronkonkoma toss the parenting no-nos out the window and wake their daughters up with a birthday doughnut. “Usually it’s a pink frosted doughnut with sprinkles,” says Michelle, 34, who works with special needs children. The doughnut is topped by a spinning flower candle that blooms as it spins and plays the “Happy Birthday” tune for Kaylynn, 5, or Mackenzie, 3.
A memorable day
Karleen Cullington’s tradition actually marks the birthday of her late mother, who died of a heart attack at age 55. “It helps my son to get to know her, because she passed away when he was 18 months old,” says Cullington, 31, an early intervention therapist and single mother from Deer Park whose son, Cacen, is now 5. “We have dinner for her on her birthday, we have a picture of her and we talk about her.”
They also do something positive in Lorraine Cullington’s memory — this year, for instance, they collected toys to donate to Birthday Wishes Long Island, a charity that throws birthday parties for children in homeless shelters. “As we’re collecting toys, we share why we are collecting them and share anecdotes. It gives me a lot of opportunities to talk about her,” Cullington says. “It keeps her memory alive.”
Going to dinner with Cacen and her brother, Keith, 27, and father, Sean, 58, both of Shirley, is a way to celebrated rather than being sad that day, Karleen says. “It’s been the most therapeutic thing,” she says of the tradition.