Blowing Out Candles Is Basically Spitting on Your Friends’ Cake. Will We Ever Do It Again?

A simple drawing of 12 blue, yellow, and brown birthday candles.

Have you celebrated a coronavirus-era birthday yet? How did it feel? Some people we know were very saddened and disappointed to not be able to celebrate in a big way. Some were actually relieved to be able to spend their birthday quietly and without fuss. Others just shrugged their shoulders, bought a cupcake at the store, and set their sights on next year. But sad, relieved, or resigned, nobody blew out the candles while loved ones gathered around closely and sang a silly ditty. Welcome to the New Normal. In this July 2020 report, Washington Post feature writer Caitlin Gibson wonders whether that familiar custom may be gone forever.

Read it here.


1. Gibson’s article is a report, in the sense that she offers little-known historical information about a widespread and cherished custom, as well as research results about the practice and the personal impressions and perspectives of several interested people, including the president of the National Candle Association. What was Gibson’s purpose in writing? Does the report have an objective other than simply imparting information? What might it be? Explain your reasoning.

2. Gibson’s report is journalistic rather than academic, so it doesn’t require a formal bibliography. Still, she was careful to include hyperlinks to her published sources, and she gave some personal context information about the individuals whose views she included. List the research sources that Gibson consulted for her report. Check out each one and assess its reliability. Are the published sources credible and reliable? Why or why not? Explain your process and reasoning.

3. LET’S TALK. Gibson closes by saying that gathering to celebrate another year of living feels “especially now, like something worth wishing for.” Is there another small custom or ritual that you took for granted before the pandemic and now wish to return? What is it? In what ways has the suspension of the custom led you to think about its meaning in your life? Discuss your responses with a few classmates. In what ways were your ideas similar? In what ways different? What new insights did you gain from your classmates’ perspectives?

4. LET’S WRITE. Gibson begins her report with two descriptions of the same scene—the first focusing on the joy and warmth of a birthday cake ritual, the second focusing on the health risks in all their unappetizing detail. COVID-19 has affected so much of our daily lives that many of our everyday customs have profoundly changed. Select one such ordinary and familiar activity and write two descriptions of it—let’s call them the Before and After COVID awareness descriptions. Now that you’ve written them, examine your process—what details did you choose in order to emphasize the differing perspectives? In addition to focusing on different details, what other techniques did you use? How did you set the stage for each scenario? 

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