The cakes that had once resembled the numerals 2 and 1, now devoured by a roomful of guests, were cleared from the head table as waiters laid out a stock of fresh candles. While the partygoers chatted amongst themselves, birthday girl Suzanna Lee ’08 leaned out across the table to survey the scene and received an awkward surprise.

“My mom had brought me this huge boa with Christmas lights on it,” Lee said with a laugh. “I was bending over the table, and the boa caught on fire in one of the candles. I was fine, though — lucky I wasn’t electrocuted, actually.”

Flaming boas, if portrayed on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” would likely transform into instruments of karma — divine retribution for the hubris of teenaged ostentation and exclusivity. But at Lee’s 21st birthday party, co-hosted with a friend at the newly-opened Barcelona wine bar and restaurant in late January, the flame-up was little more than a brief — if unexpected — moment of chaos in an evening of lighthearted festivities.

Few would contend that college life suffers from a shortage of opportunities for social activity, but even in an environment where parties of diverse shapes and sizes populate the calendar, 21st birthdays retain a certain cachet that elevates them from the more quotidian fare offered by suites, entryways and Toad’s. Yet as one recent party host put it, their significance is certainly not because the revelers are indulging in their first-ever drink of alcohol. It’s something else.

Getting the ball rolling

At Yale, it’s not necessarily all about the birthday or about the birthday at all. For example, for Larry Wise ’08 and Allie Rubin ’08, having a joint 21st birthday party at the start of the fall semester was a way to infuse life into their third year of college. Their actual birthdays may have been more than a month apart — Wise turned 21 on July 26, 2006 — but as friends who had known each other since freshman year, it seemed to be only natural for Wise and Rubin to co-host a party at Oracle on Sept. 4, 2006, literally on the eve of junior year.

“When you’re coming back to Yale after the summer, you want to start the semester off on the right foot, so a party like that was a great chance to meet back up with old friends,” Wise said. “And it also helped to avoid a continuation of the sophomore slump.”

The culmination of their planning was a three-hour celebration that made its way progressively through the club as the night wore on. Wise and Rubin had initially arranged to rent out only the back room of Oracle, but because the party took place on a relatively quiet Monday night, the proprietors allowed the guests to use the entire facility, so Rubin and Wise started the party out front.

“The first half of the party was in the front room and had kind of a lounge feel,” Rubin said. “Then for the second half, they opened up the back room and there was a lot of dancing. A lot more people were dancing than I thought would be.”

Alex Bartik ’08, Jamal Fulton ’08 and Jeff Sun ’08 reserved the back room at Bar — an establishment whose mashed-potato pizza, home-brewed beer and gregarious atmosphere are already well-known to most students — for a party in February that lasted for four hours.

“At 8 p.m. it was really laid back, with people just eating pizza and talking,” Bartik said. “And by 10 p.m. it got pretty intense, with a lot of dancing in the back room.”

Bartik said it was difficult to gauge the attendance at any point in the evening since many guests arrived and departed as they pleased. Rather than ending in a single blaze of glory, Bartik, Fulton and Sun’s party smoldered throughout the evening, allowing a range of acquaintances to enjoy the festivities.

“People at Yale are busy,” Bartik said. “Having a party that lasted so long gave all our friends the opportunity to come by whenever they had the chance.”

The trio’s celebration exemplified the fact that birthdays are useful mostly as pretexts for a party.

“I had actually turned 21 more than a month earlier,” Sun said with a laugh. “And it wasn’t Jamal’s real birthday, just his half-birthday. Our party was really about getting a group of friends together, and having it on Alex’s 21st birthday just facilitated that.”

Party how hearty?

For a comparatively small city, New Haven possesses a nightscape varied enough to accommodate most students’ party demands. Oracle, Hula Hank’s and Neat Lounge are staples of the 21st birthday party circuit, offering a reliable template of carousing and dancing in a clubby atmosphere. Neat Lounge played home to one of Yale’s more sizable bashes last September, hosted by Beau Babst ’08 and David Shapiro ’08. Much like Wise and Rubin’s party, Babst said the occasion was a much-needed reunion and a perfect chance to give junior year a good shot in the arm. And like Rubin, Babst said that the club staff was especially obliging in helping to plan the big night.

“The guy at Neat was really nice to us,” he said. “He even waived the room fee.”

Such cordiality is unsurprising, as student parties do their fair share to increase the business of local establishments. Andrew, who works at Oracle and did not wish to give his last name because he is not authorized to speak for the club, said the requested accommodations can range from a VIP table to the entire club, and that every party helps attract a more diverse clientele.

“Birthday parties do add to the business,” he said. “They end up having sort of a snowball effect, since they tend to get people out to the club who normally don’t come.”

But not all Yale students gravitate to the club scene for their 21st birthday parties; some, especially international students, don’t get all that worked up over the occasion to begin with. Ervin Yeo ’07, who hails from Singapore, said he had a hard time even remembering what he did for his 21st birthday last year.

“I’m sure I did something to celebrate, but it definitely wasn’t a huge party,” Yeo said. “It’s different for me because in Singapore the big birthday is 18, not 21. My friends threw me a surprise party for my 18th birthday in high school, but when it came to my 21st I didn’t do anything over-the-top.”

Mimi Levine ’08 held a party for her 21st birthday this past Tuesday, but she decided to spurn New Haven nightlife altogether, filling the Swing Space common room with cookies, cakes and chocolate-covered fruit instead and extending an open invitation to everyone she knew. The mood was casual: Silliman Master Judith Krauss was among the guests blowing soap bubbles into the air.

“Everyone had midterms and was really stressed out, so I thought the best way to go about it was to have a party, study-break style,” Levine said. “I love having relaxed, non-exclusive, totally informal and slightly quirky parties because I feel that people enjoy them more, and they also reflect who I am as a person.”

Alcohol, Levine said, was hardly essential to throwing a successful party.

“I have the rest of my life to celebrate my now-legal status,” she said. “Plus, I always prefer food over alcohol — especially when the food is cake.”

But going out into New Haven doesn’t necessarily mean that the party will dissolve into drunken bedlam. Lee’s celebration at Barcelona, for instance, was literally a party you could bring your mother to: both Lee’s and her friend’s moms made it to the festivities.

Not that the evening was without its more animated moments. At one point, Lee said, a waiter
— whether from Barcelona or from another restaurant, it was unclear — made his way onto the dance floor and swept up Lee’s mom in his arms.

Toasting 21

For all their variety in type and size, 21st birthday parties at Yale share some similarities. For one, since the actual date on the calendar tends not to be of extreme concern, party planning is rarely done alone: Conventional wisdom seems to hold that it’s always better to widen the scope of the event by pooling one person’s crowd with another’s. Similar, too, is the manner in which most partiers at Yale perceive the significance of the 21st birthday. Either as the end of something old or the beginning of something new, students assign a meaning to turning 21 that goes far deeper than reaching the legal drinking age.

For Babst, celebrating his 21st birthday meant solidifying relationships that will be sustained long into the future.

“The fact that you’ve been together with these people for two years — that’s what makes the 21st birthday special,” he said. “You begin to realize that these people really are your friends, and will be for the rest of your life.”

Sun said becoming 21 is comparable to vaulting over a final hurdle on the way to adulthood.

“In our culture, turning 21 is the real coming of age,” Sun said. “Technically, your 18th birthday makes you a legal adult, but 21 is probably closer to the real thing. It actually makes me kind of depressed now, actually, because it’s almost like there’s nothing to look forward to anymore. I mean, at 25 you can rent a car, and at certain ages you can run for Congress or the Presidency, but that’s about it.”

Still, if the generally-accepted significance of turning 21 is to bid farewell to the past and to cast a wary eye on the future, then the mantra of the 21st birthday party is to live very much in the present. And, to judge by Lee’s combustible boa, the present can offer more than a few surprises.

“I knew I wanted something hot for my 21st birthday,” Lee said. “Only I didn’t know it would be that kind of hot.”