When I was a kid, I knew exactly what to do on my birthday: have a party! There were two kind of parties: homemade and store-bought.
A home-made party was at your house. Your mom made stuff you loved to eat and decorated a cake. Balloons and streamers and banners covered whatever part of the house you were going to be allowed to mess up. Your friends came over and ran around like crazy monkeys until your Dad was sent to tell you what it was time for: games, presents, food, cake, etc. A couple of hours later, the kids were given small party-themed bags full of candy and useless plastic toys and sent home to start their exhausted sugar comas.
A store-bought party was at a place, like a bowling alley or bouncey house or zoo or amusement park or whatever. The format was the same, but your Mom looked less harried because she wrote a check and let someone else do all the running. I always thought that having this kind of party meant that the birthday kid was rich, though, as an adult, I've realized you can spend just as much at an at-home party.
I can count the number of birthday parties I've had after turning 21: one. When I was 33. My now-husband and I were newly dating. So, we had a birthday party for me, largely so his friends could meet me. My five-year-old daughter was thrilled! She picked out a Hobbit-themed cake for me. I talked her out of $50 worth of balloons, though, claiming they wouldn't let us have them at the bowling alley.
While that party was a really great day, full of happy little moments, I haven't minded not having a party since. Once you become an adult, parties are a lot of work. Even if you have it somewhere-not-your-home and just buy the food/cake/entertainment, there's still planning, coordinating, decision-making. And your mom doesn't usually just take care of it for you. Especially if your mom, like mine, lives twelve hours away.
Our youngest has a hard time understanding why Mommy and Daddy don't necessarily want what she thinks of as a birthday party.
We had one for T recently. It wasn't really his birthday. Because his birthday falls right on top of Christmas, Chanukah, and our oldest girl's birthday, we have T's birthday, observed, and hold it two months late. There were some trappings of a birthday party: food, guests, games and cake. But no one sang "Happy Birthday" and no gifts were given. Several of our guests probably didn't even know that T's birthday was why we were having a party.
T was happy with that. He's not a center-of-attention sort of fella (yet another reason he's awesome). He appreciated the gift of the time to just play games with out friends, ignoring other responsibilities for a day. He even, quite willingly, took on a goodly portion of the prep work to make it happen. It's a really different idea of what make a good birthday party than our children have.
Our littlest had a good time playing with our guests, but she really didn't understand why we didn't decorate or put candles in the cake. I think she was worried that, if that's what we think a party is, that hers will be like that, too. (She'll be 5 this year: she's so excited about her party!)
We're having a store-bought party this year. She wants Chuck E. Cheese (shudder). It sounds terrible to me, but I love her and it's what she wants. I'm sure the kids will have a good time, and the parents will be nice about it. We'll do the same for whatever their kids ask for.
I guess that's what a birthday party is really all about: celebrating the way you want to.