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Want to party like a rock star?
The competition to mark special days heats up, and celebration rituals get ever more lavish.
July 16, 2004: 2:39 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I turned 40 the other day. You may have missed the news, since no one bothered to write about it.

That wasn't the case for CNN producer Wendy Whitworth when she hit 50 last year. Her rite of passage made headlines around the globe -- because her husband hired Paul McCartney to sing at the party.

In return for a $1 million charitable contribution, Sir Paul played a 19-song set and made financier Ralph Whitworth look like the most generous husband in history.

The Whitworths may have had the connections and the cash to hire an ex-Beatle, but even people of lesser means are throwing lavish parties in their own extravagant ways. Welcome to the Age of Competitive Celebration.

Many of my friends have been marking their 40th birthdays lately. While prosperous, nobody is a cagillionaire. They're just successful people trying to commemorate life's approximate mid-point.

Some are choosing contemplation. One friend flew to an ashram in southern India, another journeyed to a purgative spa in Indonesia.

Others are throwing blowout affairs in far-flung locales. I've been invited to 40th birthday parties in places from Austin to St. Tropez. And a few of us are angling for a guys fishing weekend in Wyoming (which may not happen unless someone's wife takes care of the details).

For my own 40th, however, I wanted to do something different. So I threw myself a dinner party. At home.

Weddings to break the bank

The modern American wedding offers the easiest illustration of the spiraling cost of commemoration.

Twenty years ago, the typical wedding in the U.S. cost $4,000, according to Cele Otnes in her book, "Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding." Today, couples spend an average of $22,000 on nuptials -- more than three times as much, after adjusting for inflation.

Even events tangential to the wedding get star treatment. Bachelor parties, for example, used to be about drunk guys sitting around watching stag films. Now, they're well-organized, often elaborate, excursions.

One group of New Yorkers I know flew to Cuba to smoke Cohibas on the beach. Another bunch chose Iceland for volcanoes and the mid-summer sun.

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It's not just weddings that are going over the top. Tales of excessive bar mitzvahs are legion, like the one about a father who rented Dodger Stadium on the day his son became a man.

More recently, the New York Times reported on a family that spent more than $50,000 on a "bar mitzvah" for their 13-year-old son. The catch: they weren't Jewish. It was just a party.

Or consider the Latino coming-of-age tradition, the quinceanera. When a girl turns 15, she is feted by her family in ceremonies that are growing ever more lavish, according to Alissa Quart, author of the book, "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers."

"Families now often rent banquet halls, staging set-designed receptions replete with a dance choreographed specially for the birthday girl," Quart writes. "In Miami, families celebrating quinceaneras may rent cruise lines for the weekend for relatives and friends." Tabs of $15,000 to $30,000 are not uncommon.

What does it all mean?

If I were a pop psychologist, I'd have all sorts of reasons to explain the trend. Maybe it's media exposure to royal weddings and CEO blowouts. Maybe we're too rich, or too shallow, or both.

The Good Life

I don't know. But on the occasion of my own special day, I didn't much care. It was time to party.

We made great food: canapes of smoked duck, crab cakes, grilled shrimp and terrific cuts of meat.

There was a cheese course so rich my arteries are permanently damaged, and enough wine to rival a party at Versailles, including a particularly memorable bottle of Barbaresco. There was even a cake specially designed around my personal interests. (Okay, it was shaped like a beer bottle.)

But the best part was the guest list. With only a few far-off absentees, my closest friends -- a sparkling group of my favorite people in the world -- came over for dinner.

I didn't make it to India, and I didn't spend $1 million on the band. But in the game of competitive celebrations, I'd say I won.

Of course, I may still invite Mick Jagger to my 50th.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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