If you’re an American – celebrating your birthday in Germany will be different from what you are used to. Depending on your level of openness and flexibility, some fare better than others in the birthday department. I still prefer the American it’s-my-birthday-so-spoil-me-and-don’t-make-me-pay-for-anything way of celebrating, but hey – to each his own.
Here are the things that stand out to me as being different to how we ‘Muricans celebrate our special day and some advice to help you avoid birthday blunders here in Deutschland:
Whether it’s your birthday or someone else’s, in Germany one is only wished Happy Birthday on the exact day of the birthday or thereafter. “Happy belated birthday” is fine, but “Happy early birthday!” is not allowed and is believed to bring bad luck.
If you have a friend or colleague with an upcoming birthday and you want to get a jump start or (like myself) not forget their birthday by wishing them a happy early birthday – you shouldn’t. Make a note to congratulate them after the fact, and not before. You’ll get a stern lecture on how it’s bad luck (Pech in German) to wish a happy birthday before the fact.
This is taken very seriously here, so if you remember one birthday bit of advice let this one be it.
In Germany, if you’re the birthday girl or boy, you bring your own cake. Every time. At schools, offices, or friend gatherings, if it’s your special day the cake will not be provided for you. This isn’t so strange for me when it comes to my kids, as where we hail it’s customary that treats to share are brought to school on your birthday.
But in Germany, you better bring a cake to work to share. You’ll very likely be gifted with flowers, candy, booze or some other nice gift from colleagues or your company, but showing up without a cake to share with the office is a major faux pas. Major.
The cake doesn’t have to be a masterpiece – Germans are modest when it comes to sweets so really anything works. I’ve seen the saddest cakes of my life in this country that doesn’t appreciate pretty. You can bring cupcakes, brownies, cheesecake, plain bundt cake, anything. As long as it’s baked and you call it a cake, then you’re good. Just don’t make it too sweet – German sweet is nowhere near American sweet, so unless you want to hear people wince in sugar-induced pain, I’d say be careful with any super sugary frostings or fillings.
And as with birthday greetings, timing is everything. If your birthday falls on a weekend, don’t you dare bring the cake on a Friday to celebrate before your birthday. You’ll get shocked gasps and horrified expressions, and worst of all – not a single gift, because organized Germans will have planned to celebrate your day after the weekend.
Birthday Drinks or Dinner
In Germany, the birthday girl or boy does the treating. It’s just how it is. So if you choose to celebrate with dinner or drinks out instead of hosting a party at your place, be ready to foot the bill for everyone. This may not be strange for everyone, but for me it was odd because I’m used to a birthday ‘system’ that isn’t so rigid. Where I come from in the South, you might end up paying for your friends if you gather at the local watering hole for birthday drinks, but it’s possible that your guests won’t let pay and will treat you instead.
Remember that Germans love rules and processes and will follow cultural protocol, so if you invite your peeps out for your birthday, make you sure have cash to cover the whole crew. So if funds are tight, my advice is to have a soirée at home or opt for drinks only instead of dinner out. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
All that said, Germans do love birthdays – and even though you’ll have to do some work on your birthday – be it baking your own cake or paying for your celebratory bash, you will be given love and sincere attention by those you know.
Enjoy it – but don’t forget to bring your own cake!