Recently, my sleuthing skills were put to the test as I was tasked with solving a murder. Not a real murder, mind you, but rather an elaborate game put together specifically for my sister's birthday party. Adding another level to this ruse, the fake murder took place at Hogwarts (my sister's a bit of a Potterhead), so all those in attendance were charged with taking on the persona of a character from the Harry Potter universe.

Diligently, I fully embraced my role as Severus Snape — with accompanying Alan Rickman impression — by brooding, being dour and constantly expressing my contempt for those around me, especially "the boy who lived" (played by my brother-in-law). I even got into costume for the evening, something I frequently opt out of on Halloween.

While I was unsuccessful in pinpointing the murderer, I was happy to contribute to the jovial atmosphere that was well-received by the intended target of all the merriment — my sister.

In addition to helping make my sister's night, the murder mystery helped jog my own memory and set me to thinking back fondly on a number of birthdays that were all about the experience.

Going back through old home movies, there is plenty of video evidence of these festivities, but even without that I could immediately pick out one of the most memorable parties because, quite simply, it sticks out. I mean, it's kind of hard to forget about hunting for buried treasure on your birthday.

Looking back, it can't have been that hard to facilitate either, as — no matter the occasion — my mom tends to enjoy leaving numerous clues when it comes to gift-giving; it's like second nature to her, even if it does warrant a sarcastic eye roll ("oh, this again") from time to time.

For the event, our backyard was riddled with clues — some buried in sand and some for which we had to sail the high seas (our pool) to collect — all leading to a chest full of loot to split with the shipmates I had recruited for this quest.

Even in more recent history, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better birthday experience than the surprise Star Wars-themed party my friends held for me at ... an age I'd rather not say (fine, I was in my 20s).

From tossing proton torpedoes into two-meter exhaust ports (playing washers) to answering trivia questions while watching the original trilogy, it was a celebration I would say was at least on par with that of the one held on Endor following the destruction of the second Death Star.

As fun as it is to recall these experiences, what these memories highlight more than anything is a sentiment shared recently by a friend — that as we get older it's not the gifts received that stand out to us, but rather the time and experience we share with those closest to us.

Case in point, at both those birthday parties mentioned I couldn't describe with 100 percent certainty any of the gifts I received, but I can recall all of the other festivities and who was there to take part in them.

Even at a younger age, I recognized how lucky I was to be around so much family and have the opportunity to celebrate with them. Of course, my birthday falling right after the Fourth of July probably didn't hurt the chances of having a big gathering.

Seeing my sister delighting in the fact that everyone who attended bought into the whole ordeal illuminated the real magic of birthdays. Gifts are inconsequential in the long run, but it's the experiences and the people we experience them with that we won't forget.

-Kelly Breckunitch is a general assignment/county reporter for The Kansan. He can be reached at