On her kitchen wall in Warsaw, Poland, my grandmother has an old notebook pinned up alongside photos of her grandchildren and our childhood drawings. It’s a calendar, densely filled out in her round cursive with different colored pens.
It’s not your average planner. No years are assigned, just a month per page and a line for each date. It’s where she keeps track of birthdays or anniversaries of family and friends. It works. She’s always on the phone, sending birthday wishes in warm conversations with people sprinkled all over the globe that she’s kept in touch with over decades. She’s a master greeting-card-writer, with return notes frequently arriving in the mail.
Those phone calls and cards are a far cry from the five generic “happy birthday!’s” you write in a row on Facebook, or the cute, but dispassionate emojis you get on your wall from friends who really should have texted or called. (To my friends reading this: You did just fine this year 💕.) And my grandmother’s calendar won’t bother telling you—as Facebook does—that it’s the birthday of Frank from your freshman bio class, or of a coworker at a previous job you friended out of obligation.
How about this for a modest proposal: Let’s just stop with the endless parade of Facebook “HBD!” posts. Let’s be honest, they were never particularly meaningful. Oh great, you remembered about your uncle’s birthday because Facebook told you about it. You took three seconds to type something, and then you moved onto the next person in the birthday notification box. Isn’t that just kind of…lazy?
Anecdotal evidence among my friends and co-workers suggests that people have already been getting and giving fewer birthday wishes on Facebook lately. This could be because we’re a relatively young bunch, mainly based in New York. Many of them check the social network less and less, out of boredom or frustration with the platform—and some even boycott Facebook (though not everyone can, as we’ve pointed out before).
But if you’ve outsourced remembering birthdays to Facebook, and you don’t visit the platform as often as you used to, you run the risk of forgetting the important ones. An editor at Quartz pointed out a related anxiety: “I always feel kind of embarrassed if it’s clear that Facebook just reminded me it’s someone’s birthday, if it’s a close person,” she said. “It feels cheap to be reminded by Facebook.”
This is not an argument to call every one of your 1,500 Facebook friends. But it is worth picking those who you really care about, and make the effort. Send them a card, call them, or, at the very least, send a considered text. The point of a birthday wish, after all, is to show affection—not to show the efficacy of an online database.
Instead, be like my grandmother, who remains perplexed by Facebook and amazed by the fact that I’m already abreast of what’s going on with my cousins before she tells me. Start a birthday calendar! Sure, you can just put the occasions that matter in your Google calendar, or whatever productivity app you use. But isn’t it nicer to be reminded of the people you care about by your own handwriting on nice stationery?
People in the Netherlands love their birthday calendars, and apparently often have them in their bathrooms. (I asked a friend who lives there why this was the case, and got back the charming answer: “It’s practical. When else are you sitting somewhere with a moment to spare?”)
My two attempts to buy a birthday calendar at stationery stores in Manhattan were met with blank stares, but you can find plenty of these calendars (also called “perpetual”) on Etsy. I’ve also spotted this one at the MoMA Design Store. Muji makes an undated monthly planner that could work as well. Or, you can make one yourself, ideally with a simple vertical-style notebook (which would make a great DIY Christmas gift).
I called my grandmother to talk about birthday calendars. The conversation was long, because as she looked through hers she kept remembering stories about the people whose names she saw. She’s had it for 30 or 40 years, she said. And she looks at it every day. There are friends she will call only twice a year (the other time for their name day) because she sees their name in the calendar—but they often end up using the opportunity to have a real catch-up. And some dates she has marked with a name and a cross—the day of someone’s death. “If I want to remember to put a flower on their grave, I have the death anniversary,” she explained. A Facebook reminder won’t do any of that.