Your birthday is when it’s all about you – unless you live in Germany. Celebrate in style with these German birthday traditions.
As a newcomer to Germany, you might be surprised to find out how people ‘honour’ your birthday. No-one will mention your birthday beforehand. You may be forced to do housekeeping chores. You’ll be expected to buy your own birthday cake to share with everyone.
What exactly can you expect when it’s your birthday in Germany?
1. No one mentions your birthday in advance
One cultural quirk about birthdays in Germany is that mentioning them before the date is bad luck. If your German friends are nice enough to give you a birthday present, don’t open it until the actual day – or at least don’t tell them you opened it before your birthday.
If you’re sending someone a gift, make sure to write ‘GEBURTSTAG‘ in all-caps, so they don’t inadvertently open it a few days early and bring unknown horrors upon themselves.
2. You buy your own cake
Given how silent everyone is pre-birthday, you may be tempted to drift right through the day unnoticed. Particularly if you’re at work, things will get awkward around the early afternoon when everyone expects a cake and you don’t deliver. In Germany, this custom is einen ausgeben.
If your coworker drops by to wish you ‘Alles Gute zum Geburtstag‘ (all the best for your birthday), the jig is up. You’re going to need to get that cake. Sprint out the door to the nearest bakery, buy the first Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (black forest cherry cake) you see, and throw it on the office coffee table before anyone catches on.
3. You organize (and pay for) your own party
There are pros and cons to this one. Cons: Party planning is annoying and buying food and drink for all your friends is a lot of money. And it’s meant to be your birthday! Aren’t people supposed to be celebrating you? On the positive side, you get to have total control over what you do on your birthday and who celebrates with you – no random people invited.
4. Your celebration seems to personally offend everyone
Get used to that prickly ‘I’m-being-watched’ feeling because more often than not, your German neighbor/fellow tram passenger/coworker is expressionlessly, dispassionately observing your every move. It’s such a startling thing for most outsiders that the German Der Spiegel, one of the largest publications in Europe, wrote a whole article about the phenomenon.
So if you’re having a party for your birthday, don’t let the ocular pat-down worry you. That’s just how they do it in Germany.
5. Beware if you’re single and turning 30
As a last-ditch attempt to save you from unmarried oldster-dom, your friends will have you do some very public (and possibly drunken) chores to let all the other singletons know you’re skilled and available. Get ready to advertise your housekeeping.
If you’re a guy, your friends will find a messy staircase for you to sweep. Women must clean doorknobs with a toothbrush. When potential soulmates cruise by, they’ll get to admire the goods and evaluate your housekeeping skills all at once. You can also reduce your chores for the price of a few kisses.
6. If you’re a kid, you get a break
Kids get to enjoy some much-needed R&R on their birthdays. They don’t have any chores or homework on that day, so they’re free to chill out and catch up on some reading.
For German kids, the birthday candles don’t go on their cake. Instead, each child has a fancy wooden wreath holding a candle for each year up to age 12 (plus one in the middle for good luck). This wreath sits on the family’s dining room table on the child’s birthday.
7. Have an awesome time
German beer, cake, no homework and friends you can trick into making out with you? Sounds pretty fantastic. As the 94-year-old man who busted out of a German hospital to head to a beer hall on his Geburtstag could tell you, Germans are serious about birthdays.