Celebrating Birthdays the German Way

By Francine McKenna on Email

There is a rule one has to know when a birthday is being celebrated in Germany. Do not under any circumstances give the birthday celebrant his or her greeting even a minute before “THE” day has arrived.  Even if you know you will not see the Geburtstagkind, “birthday child”, on the actual day, giving the wishes beforehand is taboo as traditionally it is believed to bring bad luck for the following year, and who needs that thought when they blow out their candles on the day?  A second after midnight, joy and happiness all around, seconds before, startled silence at best, horror struck faces at worst.

Birthday candles are popular tradition. A candle for every year and an additional one for good luck.  Some designed to last all day are put onto the birthday cake, if there is one, otherwise on a safe surface, and are left to burn as long as possible.  Of course this does mean that if the Geburtstagkind is 90 the cake, or table, had better be very large indeed, and it might be a good idea to have a fire extinguisher handy, while at the same time the heating can be turned down even in the depths of winter.

No birthday presents are opened before the day, and even if you are not German, still don’t open them if you want to avoid bringing “angst” either into the lives of the givers, or any Germans who might share your life in any way. From those in the office to the home.

German children love birthdays, which is not surprising because not only is the house decorated in their honor it is a day free from homework, or any of the tasks that they would normally have to do.  And there is a special tradition, a wooden birthday wreath with twelve holes or holders for candles and in the middle enough room for the “Light of Life” candle, a large decorated candle which is lit each year, or a “Number” candle.  For each year of a child’s life until it reaches twelve, a candle is placed in the wreath and lit, until all twelve candles and the “life” candle, or “age” candle burn together. A milestone.

And for all age groups, one of the most popular “Geburtstag” songs from Kindergarten onwards is ‘”Wie schoen dass du geboren bist”, How wonderful that you were born.

Although once adulthood takes over, celebrating a birthday becomes a little more complicated.  Having a birthday celebration in Germany means you have to organize and pay for it yourself, so there is a choice to be made. If you prefer the passage of time to pass quietly, preferably unnoticed, and by doing so perhaps save enough to have a holiday, you don’t organize anything. However if a birthday cannot possibly pass without some type of celebration then, some weeks before, it is time to start drawing up lists and menus as well as raiding the Sparschweinchen, “piggy bank”.

From a meal in a restaurant, where once again not only all the organization but also the bills are covered by the birthday boy or girl, to the office when coffee, or something stronger, and cakes will be expected at the very least.  Having a birthday during a holiday does not mean that this is a convenient escape route, and that work colleagues will then happily settle for looking forward to celebrating next year instead. No, the first day back at work means you arrive rested or exhausted, depending on the holiday, perhaps tanned, but certainly carrying cake boxes.

For birthday greetings in Germany “Alles, alles Gute zum Geburtstag” is still probably the favorite phrase used, “Everything, everything good for your Birthday”, but the English “Happy Birthday” is not far behind these days. And there is a more formal “Ich gratuliere zum Geburtstag” – “Congratulations on your birthday”.  And why congratulations?  It isn’t an exam that has been passed after all. Well the usual reply is, “consider the alternative, so far you are still around”.

The “Round Birthdays” are often big occasions, 30, 50, 80, while in some regions for men ‘Der Abrahamstag’, the 50th birthday, is special and loosely based on some words from John 8.57 in the bible. But 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”.

In some areas any man reaching thirty, and currently without a girlfriend, is made to sweep stairs. His friends will make sure the stairs are in an easily seen open area, in such a condition that they will need a lot of work and so take up as much time as possible, and any young woman who passes by can see that this is an available 30 year old male who can also keep house.  After all he is no longer a “Junger Huepfer”, spring chicken, so it is “uphill” after the 30th birthday.

Germany remains a family orientated country and one way or another family will be included in any birthday celebrations, regardless of age and distance, if it is not on the day itself then as soon as possible afterwards. These really are family events where “outsiders” are rarely invited, and one of the most popular customs is composing poems in honor of the birthday celebrant.

Some memories fade but others are unforgettable and, especially if they are as embarrassing as possible, these are often what make up the bulk of the poems.  So, although a birthday party where non-family members are excluded might seem a little strange at first, it is perhaps a relief to many a Geburtstagkind that all these memories don’t end up reaching a new and wider audience outside the family.  And in some cases that might even be the best birthday present of all.


Source: Bella Online
Photos by Will Clayton, Lynn Friedman and LorenzHausleitner via flickr

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Francine McKenna