Spring seems to be a popular time for birthdays, mine included. The Germans have some unusual traditions, for me anyway, around the celebration of the annual day of getting older. In short, you buy for your friends, cake is not what you might expect and of course they sing a different song. Join me for a look at German birthday traditions.
You buy for your friends
Maybe this is the consumer driven “me” culture of the US. There, when your friends go out to celebrate your birthday, it is pretty common that one person picks up your tab or they all chip in a few bucks. “It’s your birthday, you shouldn’t pay.” This is normal in the US and in addition to giving gifts. You just get taken out for drinks or dinner.
In Germany it is the reverse. It is normal to pay for your friends. This comes in varying degrees, but the most common seems to be paying for the first drink of everyone that comes to hang out. I’ve seen this several times. At our office, it comes in the form of the birthday celebrator bringing cake or other baked goods for the entire office. This can be nice for the rest of us as it means a fairly even distribution of birthdays means a steady stream of afternoon cake breaks.
This can lead to some cultural misunderstandings I’m sure, though I have thankfully not run into any problems myself. It does feel awkward to go to a party and have drinks paid for instead of the other way around. And for the outsider to not bring anything may seem rude. I constantly forget about it until my birthday comes around and then I scramble.
Difference in Cake
Cake, especially birthday cake, in the US is light and fluffy, usually bright yellow, and under a half inch of buttercream frosting. Add candles and something written on it in even more frosting. The whole thing is mostly butter and sugar in some form or another. The happy joyousness of the party is often fueled by the sugar high. This is far more common with children, though if an adult gets a birthday cake that is what you expect.
German cakes are different anyway. For one thing, Coffee and Cake is almost a fourth meal, so cakes in different forms are far more common. Cake is usually fruit based in some form and less sweet. Frosting is nearly unheard of on cake. You might get streusel with powdered sugar or today I saw one with meringue. There is nothing light and fluffy about cake either. It is usually drier and more solid. A nice practical German cake often with fruit suspended in a custard.
I have never seen candles in a German cake, though I have seen them in the store, so perhaps it is just a dangerous thing to bring to the office.
Language Class : How to wish a happy birthday in German?
Happy Birthday is a perfectly normal German phrase that I have seen on cards and heard. You see, English is cool and hip. Though the most common greeting to wish someone a happy day of oldening is “Herzlichen Glückwunsch” or “heart-felt wish of joy”. Although the word for joy here could also be “fortune” in the sense of “good luck”.
The well known birthday song is sung to the same tune, but with different words. “Zum Geburtstag, viel Glück” meaning “for (your) birthday, much happiness/luck.” It is unfortunate though that such a nice set of words to be friendly is so hard to pronounce with so many umlauts.
Otherwise much the same
So the birthday is still celebrated here. Gifts are still given and cake is still served. Friends come together to celebrate and toast your good health. It is a social occasion just like back in the US, though with a few changes.