By Jake Bailey
This week, ahead of my 21st birthday in August, I started to plan not having my party.
No, in mid-August you will not find me taking a knee to sink a yard glass of beer in my backyard, nor polishing off my customary 21 shots (if you're over the age of 30 here's your fact of the day - yardies are out, and doing a shot for each year of life is in), nor drinking myself to near medical catastrophe in front of loved ones who haven't seen me spew like this since I was throwing up baby food. You're welcome, Nana.
Yes, I've shied away from the Kiwi tradition of the yard glass and large gathering. I've gone with not having any gathering at all, actually. And it's taking more planning and negotiation that I would imagine it takes to just have one.
This shock news that someone might break from the sacred generational tradition of putting your closest friends and family in a room together to share notes on what to rib you about has sent some of those around me into the five stages of grief.
First was the denial ("No, you'll want one eventually"), then the anger ("That's selfish, what about the rellies?!"), the bargaining stage ("What about just a small one? Even a dinner?"), and depression ("I wish you were having one"). Fingers crossed the acceptance phase will be coming shortly.
So why not have one? If you're opposed purely to the associations of binge-drinking which it brings, then why wouldn't you just not drink (aside from the inevitable torment for not being "tough enough" to do it). It shouldn't take much of an excuse to have a party, right?
Well the answer to that is unrelated but intertwined. Firstly, I'm not having one because I, amongst what I would imagine to be a decent portion of the population, cannot picture a fate worse than having an entire gathering of people dedicated to me.
I had a fairly large gathering over dinner for my 20th last year and almost had a brain aneurism, an entire party would do me in.
And secondly, because I'm not sure what I would be celebrating. Turning 21? I didn't actually do anything, it just happened.
Who was it that decided the 21st birthday was significant anyhow? I would have called myself an adult for the past two years at least, having been fully self-reliant and having moved countries in that time. So it's not a coming of age.
I've had a quick look and I've already got all of my legal rights - I can drink, smoke, get a big tattoo across my forehead or be the director of a company in New Zealand (those two are mutually exclusive). Actually, I can't adopt a child, which I'm not able to do until I'm 25 - so I'm not gaining anything there either.
Twenty-one years old might have been the legal drinking age way back in 1969, when people thought the idea of putting a man on the moon was crazy, but whoever decided that the best way to celebrate your new-found right to consume alcohol was to do so to an absolute excess was the one with the crazy idea.
If we've collectively decided as a society that spending your birthday "coma'd out" is the way to prove you have come of age, then that's even worse. "Go on, harden up mate." No thanks, I'm all right.
Kiwis love to celebrate. So much so, that a lot of occasions we celebrate are a little more than a dressed-up excuse for a party - which is fine, nothing wrong with a reason to catch up with those you love.
Unfortunately, 21st parties, like many of those other occasions, have been afflicted by the small portion of society (or marketing agencies) who are desperate to crowbar alcohol into every facet of life, using whatever excuse possible - in this case, odd traditions and rules.
Forget about the fears of normalising a binge-drinking culture in NZ - apparently, my desire to not drink two and a half litres of beer as fast as I can on my birthday is already abnormal in our society.
The desire to fit in, to be a part of something, is human nature. At the stage of life I'm in right now, you're reaching the tail-end of the teenage years in which it is absolutely palpable.
Maybe that's the underlying significance of a 21st party, the true "coming of age" - hopefully for many, it will be the last time they fall to the immense social pressure around them to fit in. In this case, to host a party, and the greater pressure to drink excessively at it. To be cool. To metaphorically measure up about who has the most expensive venue, the most friends to invite, the flashiest gifts, the biggest party.
Of course, not everyone does this. Of course, you can have a party without drinking to excess. Of course, I like a drink sometimes. No, I'm not transcribing 1000 words at you from the back of my high horse, nor from the driver's seat of my fun-police squad car.
But the bottom line is that your 21st birthday has no more significance than what you give it.
It's about as significant as the birthday that comes before it, or after it, and those that will come until they stop coming. If you deem that birthday to be one that is important to you, because you feel it marks a point of change in yourself or your life, then that is worthwhile celebrating.
But my two cents is that you shouldn't have a celebration if you don't know what you're celebrating - and "turning 21" isn't a reason. Nor is "because my friends are", nor "because my family said I should", nor because "I want a reason to get drunk", nor "because I want a photo with shiny balloons in the shape of numbers two and one to post on Instagram".
Celebrate because you've achieved something, because you've made yourself a better person, because you've earned it. Make your own reason to celebrate. And drink as much as you want to, but don't do it because you feel pressured to, and don't ask me to.