Germans and Birthdays

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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.

15 thoughts on “Germans and Birthdays

  1. Concerning the candle question: There are some people who put candles on their birthday cake, but usually you have something like this:

    It’s hard to see on the picture, but they are wooden circles for the candles…not counting the thick one in the middle, there are up to three of those circles. You don’t always use all of them (for example, if you child becomes six, you use the smallest circle which fits exactly six candles…next year, you use the next bigger one, so that you can do a circle with seven (the holder not needed are just left empty). At one point, you’ll stop using candle circles for the simple reason that you get to old too have one candle for every year.

    I am not sure how widespread it is, but we have an “extra candle” the so called “Lebenslicht” (live light). That is either the thick candle in the middle of the circle, or an extra candle put in front of the number of your year. That is a tradition which is normally kept up with no matter how old you become.

    So yes, there are candles…we just don’t put them necessarily on the cake, because we consider it highly impractical (who wants way drippings on your chocolate?).

  2. Just some comments from a native German:
    * Yes, please do not wish us a “Happy Birthday” before it’s our actual birthday. It’s considered bad luck.

    * “THE” birthday cake doesn’t exist. Pretty much any cake that you like can be your birthday cake. I have the same one every year since I was little; others like a different cake each year. We do have birthday candles, but at a certain age you really don’t want to start a bond fire on your cake..

    * You bring something to work (or soccer team, school, book club, etc.) for your birthday. We call it “Einen ausgeben.”

    * Whereas Americans find it weird that you host your own party, we don’t wait for someone to throw us one. 😉 We invite our friends to celebrate our birthday with us and as good hosts we provide food (cake if it’s for coffee time or snacks or meal-like items in the evening) and drinks. It’s okay to ask your close friends to bring a cake or salad for a larger party and thus help you out with preparation.

    * “Runde Geburtstage” (30, 40, …) usually call for a BIG party.

    • Thanks for the confirmation on so many of those points. I report what I see and experience, but I have sometimes a limited view of just my region.

  3. Almost all adult cakes here in the Us I have seen don’t have candles. Every German B-day cake for kids I have ever seen has candles.

  4. Now, how many birthdays have you celebrated in Germany? And in how many different areas of Germany?
    First of all, there are candles on cakes, but just as here, that is mostly for kids. Almost all adult cakes here in the Us I have seen don’t have candles. Every German B-day cake for kids I have ever seen has candles.

    I mean, are all Americans fat and eat burgers and fries 24-7???

    • I’m up to 4 birthdays here. I never thought that birthday traditions are different in other pars of Germany. Do you know of some?

      Yeah, I also haven’t done children birthdays in Germany either, but you are right I have seen birthday candles for them as well. I usually see a few candles on an adult birthday cake. The big difference is about the cake itself.

  5. But this birthday cake looks so sad! 🙁 It looks like a regular dessert. I definitely prefer the North American way of celebrating a birthday – but hey, it is Germany. 😉

    • That isn’t really birthday cake in Germany either. I didn’t have many pictures of any type of cake. That specific piece is just an afternoon cake in Cologne, though very similar to what gets brought to work on birthdays.

  6. I admit I like someone to tell me Happy Birthday. In Germany, I couldn’t afford to celebrate though. To be completely honest, I think we have this backwards in the US as well. Germans are a little closer to getting it right but still a little off. We actually had nothing to do with our birthdays. That was all our mom’s (and dad to a lesser extent) doing. And growing up, we were shaped by our family and friends. Ideally, our birthdays should celebrate those around us for all the people who made a positive impact on our lives.

    • It isn’t that expensive. Especially if you have a group of friends that all do birthdays around the group. Instead of each buying them something on their day, you get them all something on your day.

  7. It’s also bad luck to wish a German happy birthday before their actual birthday. Anytime after midnight of the special day is fine. Just don’t wish them happy birthday the day before.

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