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Holiday birthdays

Ask anyone born around Dec. 25 and they'll tell you: being a Christmas baby stinks. Here, they share their worst memories of birthdays past - and a few tips for pals and parents who want to make things right. (No.1: A yule log cake with candles doesn't cut it)

Call them the shelved elves. The scrooged. The snowed under.

Whatever you call Christmas babies – those born on Christmas Day or a few days before or after – just call them. People born around December 25 routinely get overlooked amid the holiday chaos. Friends are out of town, greetings are belated and gifts are hauled out from way under the tree, wrapped in paper festooned with reindeer and candy canes. Birthday cakes arrive shaped like pine trees and wishes are bratty: "Merry Birthday!"

Ask any Christmas baby and they'll tell you: Not only are they competing with the J-man, they also get steamrolled by the more modern deity of frenzied consumerism. Add to that the cookie bake-offs, office Secret Santas and holiday cocktail parties? Good luck being recognized for simply being born.

"When I was a child I was quite offended that my parents had such bad planning and bad timing to have had me on the 26th. It's really a recovery day for people," says Louise Hager, a retired bookseller who will turn 70 this Boxing Day in Vancouver.

Spent, stuffed and hungover friends are one downside to a holiday birth date, as are friends disappearing to see family in far-off towns all over Canada. The Christmas-birthday double whammy also means it's a quick shot, with no other gifting milestone to look forward to all year (for present-hoarding children, this is kind of a big deal). Those born around the holidays are also well acquainted with the dual-purpose gift, which allows givers to skimp by purchasing one present covering both occasions.

"You'd get one earring on Christmas and the other earring on your birthday," says Lisa Dempsey, a Victoria financial adviser born on Dec 26. "Or I'd get the earrings on Christmas and the necklace on my birthday. So it obviously went together."

While Dempsey, 46, gives her parents credit for celebrating her birthday, she remembers confusion when her gifts were wrapped in festive paper and stuck under the tree. "There was always, 'Oh, sorry, this is for your birthday. We gotta put that back.' You get kind of used to that."

Christmas babies will often speak enviously of the kids who enjoy their birthdays in the summer, when the weather's good, friends are in party mode, and pools and barbecues are an option. Many spoke of trying (and failing) to get their parents to give them summertime "half birthdays."

Gina Jamal did them one better.

Born on Dec. 27, Jamal time-shifted her birthday when she was in her 20s and old enough to call the shots. She threw herself a birthday barbecue in June.

"I wanted it to be warm, for once, and I wanted all of my friends to come," says Jamal, a 37-year-old Toronto project manager.

"I loved it. It was hot – I was sweating. I wore a tiara and a tank top."

People born around December 25 routinely get overlooked amid the holiday chaos.

People born around December 25 routinely get overlooked amid the holiday chaos.

Timothy Moore/The Globe and Mail

Today, Jamal doesn't rely on friends to come out of the woodwork on Dec. 27, days after they've blown their budgets and are about to abuse their livers on New Year's Eve. Tired of being "deserted," she indulges in solo travel on her birthdays instead. One year, it was backpacking through Southeast Asia, another through Honduras. This year, it's a more deluxe trip to New York.

"The best way to celebrate your birthday when it's at that time of year is to not be available for it, because none of your friends are available," Jamal reasons. "If you're not available, it's actually not so bad."

Easy as it may be to empathize with the plight of those born in late December, the question must be asked: Are Christmas babies being babies? Where exactly does their grumbling land on the line between narcissistic and a basic need for acknowledgement?

Experts say there are both evolutionary and social drivers for children to want to be recognized by their parents for their unique qualities, or in this case, for their unique birthdays. This goes especially for Christmas babies with siblings whose birthdays fall outside December – that is, siblings who get properly celebrated.

"We observe the world to see where we stand, and you learn how valued you are by comparing your treatment," says Shawn Whiteman, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University who argues that children are keen observers of fairness.

"You don't get combined gifts when your birthday's in July," says Whiteman, who suffered combined birthday and Christmas gifts as a child, even though his birthday falls on Dec. 4. "You have no control over this. Everybody else is getting gifts on your birthday. You may feel slighted."

By their very nature, birthdays are a narcissistic holiday for everyone, notes Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford, professor emerita of psychological sciences at the University of Indianapolis, who has researched family caregiving and adult sibling relationships.

"It's your big chance to be the centre of attention. It's all about you," Hilkevitch Bedford says, adding that for Christmas babies, "To see that you're always getting the short end of the stick is not narcissism. It's about fairness."

For all the pain of being overlooked amid the tide of red and green, there are some perks to being born over the holidays. You get to see extended family, some of whom are kind enough to cart in two gifts. And you probably get the day off from work. And you get the sales.

"I'd take some Christmas or birthday money and I'd go shopping," Dempsey says. "I could get three times more stuff for the same price and it was what I wanted."

Another upside is the nudge to find novel ways of celebrating. Through her 30s and 40s, Vancouver's Hager took the wheel with an open house, which she hosted in her pyjamas: "I would provide popcorn and mandarin oranges and movies. People would pop in bringing leftover turkey sandwiches. I celebrated all day. It was just delightful."

Today, Hager does a birthday beach walk with friends and their children on the morning of Boxing Day.

They are uncommon rituals for uncommon birthdays. For Les Honywill, a 29-year-old born on Christmas Day, it's been a pub night at the only pub open on Jesus's (and Les's) birthday in Burlington, Ont. (Fittingly, it's called the Charles Dickens Pub, the Dickens for short.)

"We went in for my 20th birthday and celebrated there, just five of us, in an empty pub," recalls Honywill, who is co-ordinator at the European University Centre at Peking University in Beijing.

"This became tradition and for the next few years more and more people would show up from my high school. Now, the place is packed every Christmas night in what's become an annual reunion, with so many people being home from wherever they've moved to."

The tradition lived on after Honywill moved to China four years ago. One year, when he couldn't make it home, his friends sent him a Facebook video of the entire pub erupting in a rowdy rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Being born at Christmas is a mixed bag, a realization Christmas babies come to as they get older. They also learn that lowered expectations are better than dreaming big and being annually disappointed.

"I'm really appreciative of anyone who comes out on my birthday," says Lexi McKenna, who was born on Dec. 29, joking that whoever hauls themselves out between Christmas and New Year's passes her "friendship test."

The 25-year-old custom stationery studio owner in Toronto prefaces her birthday invites with an apology and an acknowledgment that with everyone tired, busy and broke, it's "difficult timing."

Honywill says he always felt awkward asking people to "pause this amazing celebration of family and friends to celebrate me."

That said, the one small thing he always appreciated his parents doing was singing him Happy Birthday first thing in the morning, before launching into We Wish You a Merry Christmas. "That simple act has always meant quite a lot," Honywill says.

For older holiday babies, there eventually comes the understanding that a Christmas birthday can actually be quite magical.

Leila Hale, 81, of Peterborough, Ont., was born at midnight on Dec. 25. At least that's what her mother told her; the doctor wrote Dec. 26 on her birth certificate, to which Hale's mother retorted that he was drunk.

"I always knew I was born on Christmas," says Hale, whose mother didn't have a cake, sticking a candle in English pudding instead.

"I was quite proud to be born then. It was special, and I felt special," Hale says. "It will soon be Christmas, so I'm pretty happy about that."

The Christmas kids have spoken: Three tips for pals and parents of children born over the holidays

No red, no green

"When I was younger, I didn't want anything Christmas-involved at my birthday parties," Lexi McKenna stresses. That means no Xmas-themed cakes, hats or decor – and no classic Christmas colours.

Celebrate twice

Some people conveniently roll their friends' birthdays in with the Christmas festivities. "Don't do it," Gina Jamal warns. "It's never going to work out in your favour. I'm not going to like it. It's not going to be 'extra celebratory.' I want someone to contact me on my birthday – not on Christmas or on New Year's, wishing me a combined holiday of some sort."

Also: Be a good sport if someone chooses to throw themselves a "half birthday" in the summertime. Treat it with all the same fanfare that you would the real thing. This is especially important to children. "By the time you get to be a teenager, maybe it doesn't matter so much," Hager says, "but certainly from my experience, from the time that children understand it's their birthday," it's important to give it a distinct nod.

Time your pregnancy

Seriously. "If you're planning on having children, do not try to conceive during March," offers Jamal. "That would be my advice."