Female student stands smiling in front of a blackboard that reads

More Than a Party: Unusual Birthday Traditions at Hillsdale

Written by Jenny Wiland

A dozen freshmen congregate in the basement of Simpson Residence, fanning the smoke away from a cake in a desperate attempt to forestall the fire alarm. A group of girls hides in a suite bathroom, waiting half an hour for their oblivious friend to come up the stairs and into her room. An R.A. proudly presents a watermelon sporting a black wig and cut-out eyes and bearing the name tag “Wawph the Watewwewwon.” In all of these moments, the students gather for the same purpose: to celebrate their closest friends on their birthdays.

Being away from home can be difficult and lonely, especially on your birthday, when you’d normally celebrate with your family. I felt this strongly my freshman year, and the group of friends I ended up with felt the same. So midway through our first semester, when we started getting close, we decided to compile a list of each others’ birthdays. “We had lots of people with birthdays, and nobody wants to celebrate their birthday alone,” says Emily Brausch, ’23. “It’s important to let people know that they’re special.”

We decided to celebrate birthdays every month by cooking a meal in the Simpson Residence kitchen, baking a cake, and playing board games. Our first celebration was in November for Spencer Denbleyker, ’23. Back home, he hadn’t had many birthday parties with his friends, so the new tradition was special. “It was just really nice to have friends who I had constant contact with, and to have a fun birthday party with them.”

Around the same time, a group of freshman girls in the Upper West hall of McIntyre Residence also recognized the importance of celebrating birthdays. “I think we realized it was going to be rough having our birthdays here and not having our families and friends from back home to celebrate it,” says Johannah Freyenhagen, ’23. Just two weeks into the semester, they came up with their own birthday traditions—decorating each other’s doors with streamers, bringing cake, and sometimes even hiding in each other’s rooms for surprise celebrations.

This year, these ladies live in different dorms, so they’ve had to come up with new ideas. Inspired by a friend, Johannah put together a surprise celebration in a Lane Hall classroom for fellow freshman Kathryn Luke. “When they opened the door, they had streamers, which was really fun, so I came in,” Kathryn remembers. “And it was all my different friend groups! It was so exciting to see everybody come in and be there to celebrate me.”

For the women of Waterman Residence, birthdays are a special time to recognize a particular housemate. They keep a book with a list of the residents’ birthdays and things they enjoy—favorite foods, candy, drinks, songs, and even love languages. For each girl’s birthday, they’ll go in and decorate her room with whatever she appreciates most, from sticky notes with words of encouragement to a ridiculous amount of mochas. “It’s more than a material celebration,” says Emille Martelli, ’21. “It’s taking time to acknowledge the unique gifts that a person has and what they mean to you as a close friend.”

These unique birthday celebrations reveal how Hillsdale students love and care for each other every day. Through the intentional effort of knowing and loving someone well enough to craft a special celebration, no matter how many papers they have to write, these students have built a home at Hillsdale on a foundation of relationships.

Headshot of student Jenny WilandJenny Wiland, ’23, plans to study psychology and graphic design. She loves her cat, dark chocolate, and writing stories, especially science fiction and fantasy.

Published in February 2021