Birthday Etiquette

Nothing unsettles a German quite like wishing him or her a Happy Birthday before the actual birthday. The tradition of precision isn’t just in engineering appliances or designing public transport. In Germany, birthdays are also measured with exactness. I grew up with the relaxed approach to birthdays that is typical in North America: wish me happiness a day or two before, if my birthday is on the weekend; wish me happiness on the day if we happen to see each other; wish me happiness after the day has passed. All birthday wishes are welcome, and I don’t mind spreading out the happiness! The same approach goes for North Americans and birthday celebrations: Birthday parties can take place on the day, in the approximate week, or even six months later (these are half-birthdays, often celebrated for children born around Christmas, in order to spread the joy and gift-giving throughout the year).

When I moved to Germany, I was surprised to discover that Germans recoil in horror if you wish them Happy Birthday (“Alles Gute zum Geburtstag“) before their birthday! It is considered bad luck to do so: in a curiously un-German form of superstition, they find it off-putting to be congratulated before having reached the actual day. (It reminds me of their fear of drafts, which Hyde has written about before).

Wonderfully, however, Germans love to wish each other well on birthdays, so you will receive many calls once you have acquired some German friends. The string of phone calls on your birthday is even better than a string of Facebook messages – the phone calls represent the best of the thoughtful, dedicated, caring nature of German friendships. In order to reciprocate, you should make note of your friends’ birthdays and be sure to call them on their day too!

Cupcakes from Prisca’s Cakes in Stuttgart, Germany.  Click here to go to the Facebook page for Prisca’s Cakes

Should you be brazen and choose to wish a German a Happy Birthday in advance of the actual day of celebration, be warned: they will not accept the well-wishes. I therefore often include a preamble along the lines of “As an American the bad luck doesn’t apply to my salutations, as that doesn’t exist in my culture… Happy Early Birthday!” and I hope that my gentle teasing will ease their discomfort, or at least provide amusement.

Some other birthday traditions you might need to know about:

– Bring treats to work for your colleagues (this is equally valid for men and women)
– Bring treats to school for your child’s class
You buy if you are out with your friends (read Sarah’s post on this too)
– Celebrate birthdays on the day whenever possible. Only if absolutely necessary should the celebration be moved to the following weekend (but NEVER the weekend before!)
– If you host a party at home, prepare with plenty of food and beverages. Don’t open the bottles of wine your guests bring: these are gifts. Open the wine you bought for the party, and keep the gifts for another time. (This is a subtle cultural difference that surprised me on my return to North America!)

Have I forgotten anything? Have you had surprising experiences with the simple pleasantries around birthday culture? Do you know whether half-birthdays also exist in Germany? Let us know in the comments

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