There are precious moments in life when a person’s raw happiness overwhelms them. Weddings, childbirth, and important ceremonies can have this effect. But we needn’t wait for these milestones to give those we love unforgettable feelings—a well-executed surprise party for the right person can inspire tears of unbridled joy. In December, I made my partner cry with sheer delight.
In his 40th trip around the sun, this was Jon’s first real birthday party in decades. As any end-of-the-year baby can attest, Jesus’ day casts a formidable shadow—especially for Jon, who was born not only a twin but also on Christmas Eve. Not even his technicolor personality can outshine billions of twinkle-lights, indulgent feasts, and presents for all.
A few months ago, I decided I wasn’t going to let this birthday pass without a celebration worthy of Jon’s big-hearted exuberance. He’s a natural-born extrovert who relishes in the company of others. I knew there would be no greater gift than an unexpected night full of the people he loves.
This was the third surprise party I’ve planned, and I’ve even had two thrown for me over the years. All five were successful in the sense that the guest of honor had no clue.
I cried on my 23rd birthday when my boyfriend and friends in Japan got me good. My student Yuri had decorated the facade of her apartment like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. As a newbie to Niigata City, I legitimately thought it was an izakaya, complete with a cute “Open” sign and a full menu, until I saw the large table full of familiar faces and heard their cheers.
I was overcome with love for several days and couldn’t believe everyone had gone to such lengths to create something special for me. It hits in layers when you realize everything that people do in order to orchestrate that perfect moment for you.
Years later after I’d moved to San Francisco, I decided to throw a surprise party for my best friend and future bridesman Murray, who was turning 30. He was definitely surprised—but I wouldn’t say he was delighted. He took a full 45 minutes to recover from the shock of having everyone gathered for him at our friend Pat’s apartment. At one point, I thought Murray was going to throw up from astonishment. He had to step outside several times to get some air (and to text his future wife, Jamie, whom he’d just started dating).
I learned that there is a certain type of personality that responds well to a surprise party: a person who doesn’t mind being the center of attention. Although Murray eventually settled into it, we didn’t get the “unbridled joy” we were going for. Jon, on the other hand, enjoys the spotlight and was the perfect candidate for my schemings.
In addition to selecting an appropriate target, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Capitalize SURPRISE in all communications—and give all of your guests a ready-made ruse if they fuck up. Many a surprise party has been ruined by someone’s slip of the tongue, so you have to plan for it. Not only should “SURPRISE” be written in all-caps for any invitations, texts, and other messages about the event, but also ask guests to generate a ready-made ruse if they do accidentally mention the day (e.g., “Oh, I’m talking about your work/friend’s/family party.”) This ploy should be tailored to their level of intel since the target’s social or professional circles won’t totally overlap. A target might be confused, for example, if a distant acquaintance knew about a pre-planned work celebration which happens to fall close to the date of the surprise.
Plan more than a month in advance. People are busy, so if you want them to show up, plan accordingly. I started a month before the event, which is appropriate to people’s social calendars in Eugene. The bigger the city, the busier your guests—and the further in advance you need to send your invitations.
The day-of maneuver: know your target. One of the trickiest parts of planning a surprise is getting your target to be at the right location within the timeframe your guests expect. If the person is a planner, it’s best to have that time blocked out with a specific occasion close to your party’s location (dinner with neighbors, attending a play, etc).
Jon is not a planner, so I left this part up to the end. Fortunately, I had the help of his childhood friends (Phil and Jenna) who had flown in from the Bay Area for the occasion. They claimed they were here to visit an aunt and to work in Portland the following week. Over lunch, Jenna mentioned casually she was interested in seeing the movie “Knives Out.” Later, after exploring Eugene’s Holiday Market—movie seed planted—we started looking at showtimes.
I also asked Phil and Jenna (within earshot of Jon) if they’d rather go out for dinner or come over to our house later. When they intentionally stated the latter, I offered to “make everyone dinner” while they enjoyed the movie. I had bought myself a few hours to decorate our house and prepare.
Ask for help. People love to be in on a surprise party and a guest’s experience will be even more special if they contribute in some way. (You’ll notice everyone sharing their perspectives later with the target and each other.)
I had a lot of help. My friend Olivia picked up the catering; Jody and Kyle brought a keg; Kathie and Eric picked up the pies and offered to help decorate; and of course, we couldn’t have pulled this off without Phil and Jenna visiting from out of state.
Expect that things will go wrong. Like a wedding, not everything goes smoothly. For example, on the day of the party, Jon was insisting (rather aggressively) that we ride bikes to meet Phil and Jenna at their hotel. This would have made it more difficult to coordinate for the Holiday Market and movie later. (We’d loosely planned for Jon, Phil, and Jenna to arrive in a Lyft.)
Jenna reached out to Jon and mentioned she was interested in Christmas shopping and might have several bags, which made Jon back off his insistence we ride bikes.
If your target is being an asshole, keep the long game in mind. When my mom planned a surprise party for me when I was a teenager, I’d been especially nasty the week before because I thought we weren’t doing anything for my birthday. She thought about ruining (or canceling) the surprise, but I’m so happy she didn’t. Everything becomes clear to targets later, so have patience if they’re being difficult. Chances are they’re just feeling ignored because you’re busy behind the scenes.
Details, details, details. In the weeks leading up to the party, I stored decorations, beverages, snacks, and other celebratory accoutrements in our empty suitcases in the garage. I threw money at roadblocks and ordered catering since cooking for 30+ people was a tall order in a few short hours. I found that I was so prepared the day of and had asked for so much help that it took me less than 45 minutes to set up.
Enjoy the drumroll toward the moment. On the day of Jon’s party, I woke up and told myself I was as prepared as I was ever going to be. I decided to relax and relish in the unfolding day, not worrying about how much more I could have done. Being on-edge would have been suspicious and I credit Phil and Jenna for also keeping their cool.
I’ve learned that there’s a special kind of community that emerges from a well-executed surprise party. You get a front-row seat to a lightening-strike moment in a person’s life where they realize just how adored they are. Overall, the big-hearted deception takes more energy to plan than a normal party, but it’s absolutely worth it.