One of the things about moving to another country is that you very quickly notice peculiarities in the culture. Case in point: when you move to Germany it won’t be long before you notice the way Germans are about birthdays. I mean, sure, they celebrate in similar ways to people in other countries. But German birthday traditions can be just plain strange. Here are some examples.
Shake the Birthday Person’s Hand
Where I’m from (South Africa), wishing someone who has a birthday is similar to many other countries in the world: when you see the person, maybe at the coffee machine at work, or at their birthday party, you just say, “Happy birthday”, and—depending on how well you know the person—perhaps a quick hug.
In Germany, it is customary to approach the person, wish them happy birthday (“Alles gute zum Geburtstag”), and then…shake their hand. This means that if you’re the “Geburtstagskind” (“birthday child”), you can pretty much expect to be shaking hands the entire day. I hope you don’t have a thing about communicable diseases…
It’s a tradition captured in this children’s song about birthdays called “Geburtsdaglied” (“Birthday Song”), which features the line: “Wir schütteln ohne Ende deine Hände” (“We shake your hand eternally”). As someone who’s had several birthdays in Germany, it sure does feel like you’re shaking hands for eternity.
It’s Your Party, and You Pay for the Food and the Drinks
If it’s your birthday in Germany, and you invite people out to a bar to celebrate, the cardinal rule is: you’re paying! This one could be quite a surprise if you’re used to casually inviting people to go out with you on your birthday, expecting it to be just the same as any other night (other than it being your birthday).
In all fairness, many Germans opt to pay for only starters or just the first round of drinks. This is acceptable, provided that you make it clear to your guests in advance. Otherwise, you better have a bit of cash handy.
You Bring the Cake
Following on from the previous point, it’s your responsibility to provide cake (or other celebratory snacks) on your birthday for your co-workers. And don’t think that if your birthday falls on a day that you’re not with those people that you’re off the hook. For example: if your birthday is on a Saturday, your German colleagues will be expecting cake on Monday.
This is quite bizarre, because, if anything, people should be bringing me cake on my birthday! But logic does not necessarily play a part in cultural traditions.
Also, you could decide not to provide cake. I have known some Germans who chose not to. But even in their cases, they were making a conscious decision to fly in the face of tradition. If you don’t provide something for your birthday, just know that it will be frowned upon.
No Birthday Wishes Before the Birthday, EVER
Finally, we come to strangest of all the German birthday traditions: you never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, mention a German’s birthday before their birthday. This means no early birthday cards, no early gifts, no party before your birthday, and CERTAINLY no early birthday wishes. There are few things that feel stranger than telling a colleague to “have a nice weekend” while knowing full well it’s their birthday on Saturday, and that you will have to call them on Saturday to wish them.
The most impractical part of this rule is that you are fairly limited regarding exactly when you can hold your birthday party. Let’s say you have a birthday coming up while you’re on vacation for a few weeks, and you would like to celebrate with your friends on the weekend before you leave. Nope, then you’re just having a normal party, and not a birthday party. No one will wish you, although some might give you a gift that should only be opened on or after your birthday.
Celebrating afterward is fine by the way, and the Germans seem to have built in some leeway to cover their weird rule in that you can literally celebrate your birthday months after it happens. Just not before.
Well, actually there’s one case where you may celebrate the day before: if you’re planning to celebrate into your birthday, then you may have a party on the day before. Your friends all arrive, but no one will mention why they are there. It’s like an open secret (and can feel somewhat farcical at times). At midnight, everyone counts down like it’s New Year’s Eve, and only then do you get your birthday wishes.
So there you have it: how to deal with your birthday and the birthday of people you know in Germany. I’d love to hear what birthday traditions are like in your culture, and if the German traditions seem as strange to you as they do to me!