So, with October 3rd being my birthday, I thought it would interesting to post the differences in traditions associated with birthdays between the US and Germany. Obviously this post provides general differences, but these can vary depending on the region of each country as well as the origin of the people involved. In other words, some of the traditions associated with birthdays may vary between Bavaria and Berlin, or if someone is from a Turkish background in Germany or an immigrant from Mexico in the US. So, I just wanted to be clear because some traditions may not be followed by everyone in either country.
A special note about my particular birthday is that October 3rd is a national holiday in Germany, as it is Unification Day to celebrate the re-unification of West & East Germany. Therefore, the awesome thing about this….as long as I am in Germany, I will have an automatic day off from work!
First difference is the obvious one in wishing someone a “Happy Birthday” based on the difference in language. In German, it is “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” literal translation is (All Good for Birth Day). Another German expression is Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag (heartfelt congratulations for your birthday). The word for “congratulations” is used because basically you are telling someone “congratulations you made another year vs. the alternative”. I am not going to pretend that I know why it is not simply “glücklich Geburtstag” but my guess it has to do with the difference between grammar in both English & German. The song, “Happy Birthday to You” is one of the most recognized English language songs in the world, and can be sung in German. But, to be honest, I have yet to hear it here sung in German. Trivia: the song’s origins are from two sisters in Kentucky who came up with the lyrics in the late 1800s, and has been copyright protected by Warner Music. If the song is sung on television or in public, legally one should pay a royalty fee to Warner.
Second difference is that in Germany it is considered “bad luck” to wish someone a happy birthday BEFORE their actual birthday. This superstition also holds true for New Year (not wishing someone Happy New Year until midnight on January 1st. There are NO cards, gifts or well wishes given BEFORE their birthday. How did this start? There is a saying in German that goes like this:
Third difference is as an adult in Germany, if you want a party, YOU organize it yourself. Family and friends do not surprise or “throw you” a party. In a work setting, YOU bring to your co-workers cookies or some other pastry or sweets and pass them around to YOUR co-workers. And, if YOU invite friends or co-workers to a restaurant to celebrate YOUR birthday, the expectation is that YOU pay for all of YOUR guests. As an American, this tradition seems a little cold to me. It is kinda like saying, hey co-worker, I was born today, and I made this for you since you know me. In the US, for the person having the birthday, a “surprise” party may be given with family and friends, or a party may be planned that the birthday person knows about. I would say that not everyone has a birthday “party” for every birthday year, as these are more typical for birthdays ending with a “0” or when turning 18 or 21. This is not true for children however, as parties are given usually each year until 12. A difference in Germany is that most parties are held with just family members. In the US, a co-worker may bring in a cake for the office for YOUR birthday for everyone to celebrate. Sometimes, offices will bring in one large cake at the beginning of the month and celebrate everyone who is having a birthday in THAT month. But, I have worked in some offices where this is not the tradition, and it seems like you are having birthday cake every week.
Fourth difference, speaking of birthday cake…..pastries and cakes in Germany are different than the US. While I am not a huge fan of sweets, there is a difference between “cake” in both countries. In US, they are usually very “light” and “fluffy” vs in Germany being more “rich”. Birthday candles on a cake is a popular tradition in Germany, and there is usually one candle for every year with an additional one for good luck. In Germany, at sunrise a family member will light the candles and they remain lit the whole day instead of “blowng them out”. For children, instead of placing the candles on the cake, they are placed on a “birthday wreath” (Geburtstagskranz), which is a circle wreath made of wood with a candle placed on it for each year with a larger one in the center for good luck. This is used up until the 12th birthday. In the US, the tradition is to light the candles, sing “Happy Birthday”, and at the end of the song, the birthday person is to close their eyes and “make a wish” to themselves, and then blow out all the candles in one breath. If all of the candles are not blown out OR if the wish is told to someone, the wish will not come true.
Fifth difference is if you live in northern Germany and are single going on your 30th birthday, then you are expected to perform a few chores. If you’re female, your friends will want you to clean a few door knobs for them, with a toothbrush. If you’re male, then you’ll most likely be sweeping the stairs of town hall or some other busy public place, and your friends will keep throwing stones or leaves on the steps to keep you working. To be freed from these tasks, you need to get a kiss from the opposite sex. Sometimes, their friends will make them wear costumes to draw attention to them while performing the tasks. The custom attempts to draw attention to the person saying here is a single person who is able to keep house. Living in southwestern Germany, I have not personally witnessed this tradition.
Other age-specific traditions:
16th Birthday: In northern Germany, the birthday person could have flour poured on top of his or her head. I do not know why? In the US, this birthday coincides with the ability to gain a driver’s license. For girl’s in the US, this birthday is normally referred to as the “Sweet Sixteen” birthday, which usually involves more lavish parties and gifts than normal.
18th Birthday: In Germany, cracking eggs over the head of someone turning 18 happens. I am not sure if this is some fertility symbolism? In the US, a larger party is normally held for someone turning 18 as now the person is considered to be an “adult” even though the drinking age is 21.
21st Birthday: In Germany, this is just another birthday, but in the US, this birthday coincides with the drinking age in the US being 21, and usually involves a party at a bar where the birthday person buys their first drink. Trivia: the drinking age in Germany….14 minors are allowed to consume & possess beer or wine as long as they are with their parents or guardian, 16 without their parents, and at 18 can buy any alcohol.
25th Birthday: Another interesting custom for unmarried men and women is that if you are a single man, then a Sockenkranz, a type of garland of socks will be strung outside the home and around his property leading to his party. As he follows the garland of socks, he’ll down an alcoholic drink every few meters. Why socks you ask? In German there is an expression alte Socke (an old sock), which is a derrogatory way of saying “confirmed bachelor”. Similarly, if you are single woman turning 25, then you follow a garland of cartons (sized like cigarette cartons). These single women are nicknamed eine alte Schachtel (an old box), similar in meaning to “old maid”.
50th Birthday: in some regions of Germany for men ‘Der Abrahamstag’, the 50th birthday, is special and loosely based on words from John 8:57 in the Bible. The German interpretation is…When a man turns fifty, he sees Abraham, and “at that age he must have the same wisdom of life and dignity as Abraham”.
These are the birthday traditions that I am aware of in Germany and the US. I would be interested in knowing of specific traditions for celebrating birthdays that I did not mention here or that you know of from different countries, I would love to hear about them….so, please leave a comment to this blog post….and, happy birthday to me in the meantime!!