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Birthday tradition: Ice cream, flames

Setting a cake on fire is a strange way to celebrate another year of life. But each year, blowing out a candle-lit birthday cake is how most of us gather with family and friends to honor the day of our birth.

There are lots of ways to celebrate. Most people enjoy birthday cake at home. Others like to celebrate their birthdays by getting a free meal at their favorite restaurant. My brother Paul, however, will tear open his presents across the Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 1 in Kalisz, Poland.

This isn't the first birthday he has observed in the central European nation. As of this year Paul has marked seven consecutive birthdays in Kalisz since he accepted a teaching position at a teacher's training college.

Paul originally intended to spend a year in Europe teaching English and studying German, before returning to the states to pursue his doctorate in modern European history. But he soon fell in love with the Slavic nation and a certain Polish girl by the name of Asia (pronounced Ah-sha) Pecolt. She became Asia Hacking within a year of his arrival in Poland and he became an expatriate.

Paul was away at Purdue University in graduate school before he left for Poland, so it has been nearly a decade since our family has watched him blow out his candles. We don't get to see Paul for his birthday but, fortunately, he comes home most summers when he is done with the school year.

Back when Paul celebrated in the same country as the rest of the family, his birthday candles usually lit up an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen. He never liked ordinary cake. Purchasing the frozen treat wasn't always easy, though, since many ice cream stands are closed by November. A trip with a red cooler to a neighboring town that had a year-round Dairy Queen became a necessary birthday ritual.

His birthday was always the day after Halloween and we were usually still on a sugar-high from our trick-or-treating booty, but we still enjoyed the cake. My parents told us that if Paul had been born a few hours earlier he would have been a goblin. It was a joke my sister took too literally as she repeated it in all seriousness to kids at school.

But before we enjoyed the sugary cake, we ate homemade macaroni and cheese for supper. It was football season so, most likely, Paul was wearing a San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt while he ate platefuls of his favorite dish. If not acknowledging the 49ers, he was most likely still honoring baseball with a well-worn Boston Red Sox shirt.

Buying presents for Paul wasn't easy once he grew out of playing with Transformers and He-Man. It was never that thrilling to buy him 800-page history books. But photos from his birthday recording excited grins as he unwrapped his presents reveal that he thought otherwise.

Polish people haven't traditionally celebrated birthdays with cake and presents like we do here, although my brother says that is changing due to the influence of Hollywood movies. Celebrating your name day was more important in the predominately Catholic country. Each day of the year is associated with Catholic saints that Polish people name their children after. Children actually cannot be baptized into the Catholic Church in Poland unless they have a name that has a name day. There are no "rules" for celebrating name days. When people receive gifts they usually open them in private. Often the person who is celebrating a name day will be the one to bake a cake or give gifts.

Paul doesn't celebrate a name day, but each year our family sends a taped-up brown box stuffed with presents for his birthday. The box arrives in their Polish mailbox a little worn and sometimes rearranged after being inspected, but hopefully sometime near Nov. 1.

We can't send Paul an ice cream cake aglow with candles, but there are plenty of other American goodies he appreciates getting. This year, his birthday box includes beef jerky to give him a taste of his favorite meat, since beef is not commonly served in Poland. He is also receiving a shirt and two ties for when he needs to dress up. Of course they have shirts and ties in Poland, but Paul is not known for his shopping abilities. He will also get some Brach's Milk Maid candies to satisfy his sweet tooth. Other gifts we regularly send him are extra sharp cheddar cheese, pancake mix and Tootsie Rolls.

Our mother has become an expert at filling up a tiny box with gifts. I will be lucky to get a card in the mail from my Wadena address. But I can send him a Happy Birthday through the PJ.

And since it has been years since I have eaten ice cream cake, maybe I will buy one in his honor this November. Although I shouldn't get too carried away -- 31 candles may melt the cake.