I was waxing nostalgic about the few fond memories I have of my estranged family on my father's side. When thinking back on some of the experiences I had with them, the handmade birthday cards we used to make remains one of my fondest memories. Customized birthday cards were always a very important priority for us, and it was considered EXTREMELY tacky to give someone a store bought card, unless of course it was someone the family didn't particularly like, or someone you were pissed off at for some reason. For the record, members of my father's clan were often pissed off at each other for some reason.... or someone else.... or at the world in general....
Everyone's birthday was a veritable birthday card pissing contest, and you could expect no less than three individually or collaboratively created birthday cards from our cousins and immediate family. My parents would literally ORDER me to make cards for our relatives, getting out all the paper, pencils, paints etc. and saying "now make him/ her something NICE!" every single time. My mother would usually out- shine most contenders, being that she had gone to art school, and I suspect.... secretly harbored a fair amount of resentment towards the boorish, loud mouthed French Canadian family she had married into.
With that said, my cousin Pierre was no slouch either. Given the reference material of his extensive comic book collection, he'd often draw a mini comic about you doing some heroic deed, concluding with "happy birthday", etc. My mother on the other hand, could weild acrylics like no one's business. She would often paint you a large full color foldout birthday card, complete with a nature or city scape that included your favorite cartoon characters, foods, etc. Pierre ultimately started taking things to the next level when one year he gave my sister a card where this little guy flew out at you when you opened it (he had rigged it up with a spring of some kind). Then I got a card from him a year later where he had taken apart the motor from a little wind up toy, so when you opened the card it was a cut out of me spinning around because i was being sucked up into a tornado. Finally, he completely brought the house down when he made a full on pop up BOOK for my cousin Karla. By then everyone was like "you win dude, we give up...."
Despite the kick ass card making, the actual gifts our clan would give you were usually a big letdown. You could expect things you "needed" like socks, and in the spirit of making your own gifts you got a lot of crudely knitted items like mittens, hats, blankets, etc. usually about as aesthetically pleasing to the eye as something you'd find at Building 19 or Job Lot. The one crown gem was the year my meme (knowing that I was on a big camo kick, which I still haven't grown out of yet) made me a COMPLETE set of kiddie sized fatigues, made from that old WW2 marine camo pattern. I wore those damn things so much my father actually ordered me to stop wearing them or he'd take them away from me. I don't know how the hell she made those, but they were like..... seriously just as good as anything made by Asian slave labor nowadays. I think the next year I got a sweater where one arm was like 4 inches too long.
Before, during and after the unwrapping of gifts and cutting of the cake, my aunt would bust out some pretty hot impromptu birthday jams. She'd make up songs on the spot about you, and if she was having problems freestyling it, the old favorite "Birthday" by the Beatles would be played at least once. She had this kick ass electric piano that had a downright eerie tone to it. It's no wonder that horror punk legends The Misfits opted to use a similar instrument on their first record!
Oh, and they ALWAYS wrapped your gifts in newspaper. Always. And you always got a birthday plant of some kind. Since my b-day is in January, I'd get seeds (my uncle was a farmer at the time) intended to be planted the following spring. But even if uncle Bobby didn't hook you up with seeds for some kind of weird hybrid squash he'd invented the previous year, someone would just give you a packet of your standard, run of the mill "burpee" brand seeds for some kind of vegetable or flower. Whenever the garden was started the next spring, I was always ordered to immediately plant my birthday seeds (they would often either not grow at all or take over the entire garden....)
The more I think about it, the more I suspect that this plant giving tradition was a pagan holdover from our Celtic/ Gaulish past that was imprinted on our collective subconscious or something....
As a side note, I think my father is a giant douche, and I haven't talked to him in over ten years. After my parents got divorced I never heard from his side of the family again either, although he did make it a point a few years ago to track me down via the interwebs so that he could tell me (for the 9000th time) that my dead mother was a whore and that he was owed my unrequited gratitude for the amazing job he did as a father (he left out the drunken, abusive, child support skipping part of the story). The one thing I AM grateful for though, is that his side of the family sure did know how to party on very little $$$, and the knowledge of such old time traditions is a blessed thing in this day and age. If you can do a lot with very little, eventually you'll figure out how to make something out of nothing.