For Diamond, the vagabond decorations were a letter-perfect touch of cheer in an otherwise dreary year. When she received the letters, she set them up in the couple’s living room. Harold loved them.

“It made for a really fun birthday celebration,” said Diamond, who had to borrow her sister’s car to pick up the oversized letters. “He was totally surprised.”

Harold’s birthday was done. But the letters were on to the next stop.

Since they were first posted in the online marketplace back in November, the festive cardboard display has become so popular that there’s now a digital waiting list to borrow them that stretches to the fall.

Residents say the letters have brought a jolt of energy and community spirit to impromptu birthday celebrations during the pandemic, a tradition that’s delighted friends and introduced strangers.

“Our whole world has shrunk down,” said Jill Fekete, who got her hands on the roughly 4-foot-tall letters in January for her partner Scott’s birthday. “It’s just yet another way to interact with neighbors I might not know and be part of something that’s fun.”

Stephanie Murphy and her family are the originators of the roving letters, which are so large that most people have needed a minivan to bring them home.

Back in June, ahead of her son Nate’s 10th birthday, Murphy’s mother suggested that they use piles of old cardboard boxes to spell out “Happy Birthday Nate” on their front lawn.

Once they were made, Murphy’s other three children took on the responsibility of hand-painting each of the towering cardboard pieces, jazzing them up for their sibling’s special day. Stakes were attached to the backs of each letter so they could stand up straight in the ground.

“We were just looking for a fun way to celebrate my son’s birthday because we really couldn’t go anywhere,” Murphy said. “They took up the entire front lawn, which was kind of funny.”

Arlington resident Stephanie Murphy and her family created these "Happy Birthday" letters in June. Now, they've been used by dozens of residents around town.
Arlington resident Stephanie Murphy and her family created these “Happy Birthday” letters in June. Now, they’ve been used by dozens of residents around town.Stephanie Murphy

The letters were a hit and came back out in August for her daughter Lindsay’s 12th birthday — and then again in September, when her twins turned 7, Murphy said.

After that, Murphy decided it was time to pass them on to someone else. When she saw that a member of the free Facebook group was looking for a unique way to celebrate a loved one during the pandemic, Murphy thought the letters could be just the ticket.

“I responded to somebody that was looking for something like a birthday sign and sent a picture, and she said, ‘I saw those in front of your house, I’d love to have them,’” said Murphy.

From there, the story of the traveling “Happy Birthday” letters took flight.

Once she was done, the person who received them from Murphy paid it forward, posting them for free on the same Facebook group.

“Do you have an upcoming birthday to celebrate in style on your front lawn?? Handmade by Stephanie Murphy’s family and she’s asked after we’re done, to pass it on,” she wrote on Nov. 30. “Please comment when you can pick up.”

Responses were swift. “Would love it for this weekend! Can pick up tomorrow and pass on again,” someone responded.

“Hi. I would love for my grandson’s birthday weekend, of December 12. Coming up. It’s very cool!!,” another person said.

“Would love it for the weekend of January 9-11!,” another wrote.

Before long, a Google spreadsheet was needed to organize the rush of incoming requests. As soon as it was posted, spots were gobbled up. As of Friday, slots on the calendar stretched through October.

When people are done with the letters, it’s their responsibility to reach out to the next person on the list and pass them on. Part of the fun is following along in the Facebook group to see where they end up next, residents said.

Caring for the cardboard pieces also has become part of the tradition, with people touching them up here and there to ensure they make it to the next house. There’s even a thrill in spotting the letters in the wild while driving around town.

“It went from people doing drive-by birthday parties to the letters coming into vogue,” said Cindy Gallagher, who used the letters for her son’s fiancée’s birthday in January. “It was just the latest and greatest thing that came out of a really bad year for everybody.”

Melanie MacFarlane snapped up the letters for her son’s 12th birthday in February, using the spreadsheet. It’s hard enough to make a kid’s birthday special in the dead of winter, but it’s even more difficult during a pandemic, she thought. She needed a way to brighten his day.

“He loved them,” MacFarlane said. “The letters really made it feel like they were at a party. It just added that extra touch. This was the main decoration — and it’s free.”

The next day, a car pulled up to MacFarlane’s house and the letters were packed into the vehicle. On to the next outdoor celebration.

“They travel around,” said MacFarlane, “just like that.”

Murphy said she never imagined such a simple idea would prove so successful. But come June — if the cardboard holds up — the letters will have lasted an entire year.

“They went out into the world and they got their own life,” said Murphy. “I thought maybe a couple people would use them and that would be that. The fact that they’ve gone to as many houses that they’ve gone to, it’s pretty cool.”

Scott Lever stands outside of his home in Arlington, with his dog, Trixie. Scott's partner, Jill Fekete, set up the birthday letters in January for him.
Scott Lever stands outside of his home in Arlington, with his dog, Trixie. Scott’s partner, Jill Fekete, set up the birthday letters in January for him. Jill Fekete

Steve Annear can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.

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