Guest Post by Emily Frank

“I see the Pirate flag, Daddy, I see the flag. That must be where the Pirates took Mama. I’m swimming to shore, I’m going to save her!!!!” And quick as a wink my eight year-old son dives off the decrepit family sail boat into the St. Lawrence and dogpaddles to shore with a plastic dagger clasped artfully in his mouth. I am carefully concealed behind some shrubbery where I have ‘tied’ my hands behind my back with an old bandana. I’ve put patches of mud on my legs and the pirate skull I’ve drawn on my arm will become the ‘tattoo’ that the pirates have given me to leave behind their ominous warning.

I can watch his progress to shore although he cannot see me. This is my favorite part, watching him fully embrace the moment, suspend his sound common sense, and allow himself to believe that his mother has been captured by pirates for the third year in a row, right on his birthday. I observe as he scrambles to shore, bare-chested and dripping. He scans the shoreline, looking for some sort of clue as to where I might be hidden while shouting my name. His eyes are gleaming, his entire body quaking with excitement. Finally, he starts up what he thinks is the likely path and I shout, “Nicky, I’m here, oh thank goodness you’ve found me, come save me.” He arrives at the top of the hill triumphant. He quickly unties me, shouts to his father and his brother who are busy anchoring the boat and then says ‘Now what do you think those pirates did with my presents this year?” He then begins frantically to explore the surrounding area for more ‘clues’ that will reveal where his birthday presents have been hidden.

This all started out innocently enough when my youngest son turned four. We found ourselves fairly recently arrived in a new neighborhood, with limited funds and no extended family or friends in the area. My husband and I were trying to figure out how we could enhance the birthday experience without all the usual trappings that go into the four year old birthday party (lots of friends, games, relatives, etc.). We started with two basic ingredients: some knowledge about our son’s passions – maps and pirates – and a mid-July birthday which meant the weather would likely be perfect for an outdoor adventure.  So, that first birthday, we took him outside, presented him with map and told him that he’d be responsible for finding his birthday presents. When he asked why his birthday presents were hidden, we told him pirates had stolen and hidden them, then left us a map. Little did we know a tradition had been born!

Every year we need to up the ante a bit to keep the experience fresh. Staging my own kidnapping and rescue have been part of the experience for the last three years. Commandeering the family sail boat, with Daddy as captain, and then following a course across the St. Lawrence to a small deserted island were new additions this year. I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do next year. But I know it’s going to be great. And I will have just as much fun planning it as my son (and his brother and father) will have playing their respective roles, coming to my rescue and unearthing the cache of birthday presents. It takes the average hum-drum birthday experience and turns it into something spectacular for all of us.

My intention here is not to denigrate the traditional family style birthday parties. Those can be fabulous. And taking time out to connect with family and friends over birthday cake can be priceless in our over scheduled world. But this year, after my son told me that he could not wait until the Pirates kidnapped me again for his birthday, I began to contemplate what made this type of experience so much fun, for him and for the rest of us. After all, we live in an area where extravagant childhood birthdays are the norm. Parents diligently send out dozens of birthday invitations, have professionals organize games, bring in animals from the zoo, have giant bouncy castles, space museum tours, or countless other birthday events where ‘the fun’ has been carefully calibrated and measured into a pre-set time slot. But these events, while offering diversion and amusement, do not have the long-term resonance that our own Family Pirate birthdays do.

Why? I’ve decided its three interrelated features that make everyone in the family eagerly anticipate the annual Pirate Birthday party. The first is that it calls for full participation from everyone in the family. We are all fully physically and mentally engaged.  Whether hiding presents, swimming in the icy waters, or carefully planning out the scenario, every single one of us has a part in the planning and enactment of the event. Even hapless neighbors who have shown up at our house at the wrong moment have been dragged into the Pirate Tale, forced to deliver ransom notes and listen attentively as my son explains with urgency that his mother has been kidnapped and he must rescue her yet again! (All with a knowing gleam in his eye).

Second, the Pirate Birthdays are about us. We are masters of our own story in these adventures and can build in the features that most excite us, and that bring us closer together. For my family that means water, outdoors, and physical activity are a must. But I could easily imagine for other families it might be music, popular culture, arts, or a carefully crafted sense of luxury.

Third, there is a sense of adventure and discovery in each and every year. And to fully participate, all of us must delve into a role, suspend a bit of our everyday selves and go with events as they unfold.  When we stop running out of unique ways to celebrate the Pirate Birthday they may well lose their luster and we’ll have to come up with a new theme. It’s the annual process of re-creation, and re-invention that keep us all so hooked. We relive every moment of the ‘adventure’ long after its over.

It’s true these birthday parties take a little more energy in planning. It is sort of a logistical nightmare, getting me out to the kidnap spot and then my husband back in time to be there when my son arrives and ‘discovers’ that the kidnapping has occurred. It all takes a little staging, and a bit of suspension of our adult selves. But the end results make the extra effort all the more fun.

Nic in Pirate Mode