German Birthdays – Tradition upon Tradition

German Birthdays – Tradition upon Tradition

In many countries, birthdays are an occasion to celebrate that the person involved has survived another year. German birthdays are no different in this respect, with birthday wishes and birthday cake, but the traditions there are a bit different than what people in the UK or in the United States might be familiar with.

So, get ready to learn all about German birthday-related milestones, while we teach you how to say happy birthday in German in all possible situations.

First: never wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day!

From what we can tell, this ties into a superstition that the person might die before they reach their special day. On the bright side, this is where the German love of punctuality shines; calendars are meticulously kept of who has birthdays and when. Or you could rely on automated calendars like your phone or Facebook to do it for you, now.

Just never, ever wish people a happy birthday before the day because it’s considered bad luck. Don’t say it, don’t give them presents, nothing that might be construed as wishing them a happy birthday before the actual date.

So, no early birthday cards, birthday greetings, or gifts. A birthday celebration cannot happen before the day itself, either.

Second: if you get invited out to someone’s birthday party, you are THEIR guest.

This means two things.:

One: adults in Germany organize their own (if any) birthday-party shenanigans.

Two: if you’re the one being invited out, you don’t pay for anything. The host is supposed to treat their guests.

This is against some expectations in the US – in the US, getting together for a birthday-party or dinner is often organized by friends of the person having their birthday. However, this only seems to apply to adults: if you’re a child in Germany, expect to be treated very well on your special day up till about age 12.

Birthday in Germany - Tradition upon Tradition

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Third: speaking of children…

Some families will put candles on a “birthday-wreath” made out of wood (Geburtstagkranz) – these wreaths have about ten or twelve holes with candles in them, meant to represent each year as a child. At sunrise, the family lights the candles, and they remain lit the entire day.

However, the custom of putting birthday candles on a cake happens in Germany, too! Just don’t be surprised if you see these wooden wreaths used instead.

Fourth: Old traditions die hard!

There are some birthday traditions related to “helping” the person find a match. In northern Germany, there is a custom of having unmarried men sweep a public place or hall on their thirtieth birthday. Single women have to follow a weird tradition and clean doorknobs or the courthouse steps (often with a toothbrush). This has roots in announcing that there are unmarried people in the community that can clean, as sort of a desperate attempt to find them a match.

In German, there’s the expression “alte Socke”(literally meaning “old sock”) which is kind of a not-so-nice way to say “confirmed bachelor.” Unmarried women, on the other hand, might be jokingly referred to as “eine alte Schachtel”(or ”old box”) and, in a playful gesture, might follow a string of cigarette cartons (or other similar-sized cartons if they don’t smoke). It’s a light-hearted way of teasing or making fun of someone for being single at a particular age.

Strengthening this tie is that the only way to be “freed” from these chores is to get a kiss from the opposite sex. (The 25th birthday custom of the “sock wreaths” and “carton wreaths” for men and women, respectively, also seem to say to the entire town: here’s an old man and confirmed bachelor at 25, or an old maid at 25.) What will happen to these traditions now that people are generally marrying later and later, who knows.

Speaking of birthdays, here is also a fun article on how to identify a German’s birthplace based on the greetings they use and their drink of choice.

Happy Birthday Wishes in German

When extending birthday wishes in German, the most common expression is, “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!” which translates to “All the good things for your birthday.”

Alles Liebe zum Geburtstag

There are also other widely used German birthday greetings, such as “Alles Liebe” (All the best) and “Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag.”

You can also say, “Nur das Beste zum Geburtstag!” meaning “Only the best for your birthday,” or convey warm wishes with, “Alles Gute zu deinem Ehrentag,” translating to “All the best to you on your special day.”

If you’re writing a birthday card, some of the happy birthday wishes to add in writing would be something like “Ich hoffe, dein Tag ist voller Liebe und Lachen” (I hope your day is full of love and laughter).

Happy belated birthday

Also, if you missed someone’s birthday, you can still wish them a belated happy birthday the next day. The German version would be “Herzlichen Glückwunsch nachträglich” or “Nachträglich alles Gute zum Geburtstag.”

More Birthday-related Vocabulary

If you’re new to the German language, here is a breakdown of the keywords that take part in German birthday traditions:

  • Der Geburtstag: Literally translating to “birth’s day,” this is the German term for “birthday.”
  • Der Kuchen: Not to be confused with “kitchen,” this tasty word is German for “cake.”
  • Das Geschenk: If you’re attending a party, you wouldn’t want to forget this – a “gift.”
  • Das Geburtstagskind: The “birthday child” (birthday boy or birthday girl) or the guest of honor at any birthday bash.
  • Die Party: This is one word the world seems to agree on! A “party” is still a party auf Deutsch.

The Birthday Handshake

German people love shaking hands and do that to say hello or goodbye to everyone in a group of people. Here is a fun article on ways to say hello in German from the Smarter German blog.

Now, if you’re celebrating your birthday in Germany you can anticipate a day filled with handshakes from well-wishers. While hugs may be exchanged, the predominant and customary gesture is the handshake.

It’s a distinctive aspect of German birthday etiquette, so if you find yourself in Germany on your birthday, expect to be shaking hands the entire day.

Clinking Glasses and Saying “Cheers”

When it comes to toasting in Germany, there’s more to it than just raising your glass and saying “Cheers!” or “Prost!” There are some unwritten rules that can save you from a social faux pas and perhaps even superstition-induced consequences.

Maintaining eye contact during the toast is key, and it’s customary to clink glasses individually with each person in your group, whether these are friends or co-workers.

Forget to make eye contact, and you’re not just being considered rude; there’s a superstition that says you might be tempting fate, risking seven years of bad luck in the bedroom.

So, when you’re drinking with German people, remember to lock eyes, clink those glasses, and ward off any potential superstitious setbacks.

You’re in Charge of the Birthday Cake

In Germany, there’s a tradition where the birthday boy or girl is responsible for making the birthday cake. In workplace celebrations, the party host typically brings in cakes, cookies, or other baked delights to share with colleagues.

Parents often send treats to school for all the children to enjoy. If your birthday falls on a Saturday, you are often expected to bring a cake or treats to the office on Monday and your German colleagues might also surprise you with birthday treats.

The German Happy Birthday Song

To keep it simple, you can kick off the celebration by singing the basic “Happy Birthday” song in German. It’s a breeze to learn because you only need two lines, with the first line repeating, just like in English:

  • “Zum Geburtstag viel Glück,” (Happy Birthday to You)
  • “Zum Geburtstag liebe (name)” (Happy Birthday dear (name))

While this song is a fun addition to your German birthday repertoire, we also have to mention that the English version tends to steal the spotlight, even at parties where everyone speaks German.

Now, if you want to impress with a lesser-known gem, there’s “Wie schön, dass du geboren bist” (“How nice that you were born”).

Written in 1981 by the Hamburg-born musician Rolf Zuckowski, this song has become a birthday anthem in German childcare facilities, schools, and private parties. Zuckowski, renowned for his children’s songs, created over 40 albums in his career, and in 2007, he collaborated with illustrator Julia Ginsbach to publish a baby album inspired by the same title.

By the way, if you find learning vocabulary with songs fun, check out this article on the Smarter German blog about how to learn German with songs.

FAQs about German birthday traditions

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about German birthday traditions and what you should say on a German birthday.

How are birthdays celebrated in Germany?

In Germany, birthdays are celebrated with a mix of familiar and unique traditions. Typically, celebrations involve gathering with friends and family, enjoying a special meal, and, of course, indulging in a birthday cake. Gift-giving, flowers, and heartfelt wishes are common, making the day special for the person celebrating.

What do Germans say on birthdays?

The most common birthday greeting you’ll hear from your German friends is “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!” which translates to “All the good things for your birthday.”

Other commonly used variations include “Alles Liebe” (All the love) and “Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag” (Heartfelt congratulations), expressing warm wishes and joy on the special day.

What is the tradition of turning 30 in Germany?

Turning 30 in Germany comes with a playful tradition for singles. If a man is still single at 30, he may be teased into sweeping the courthouse steps, hoping for a cheek kiss from a passing lady.

Similarly, there is a German tradition where single women might clean public door handles and request a kiss to end the task, known as “Klinkenputzen.”

What does “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” mean?

The phrase “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” means “All the good things for your birthday” and is a popular and heartfelt way to wish someone well on their special day.

Summing Up: German Birthdays – Tradition upon Tradition

Even though Germans are generally known to be very punctual, In Germany, it’s considered bad luck to wish someone an early happy birthday.

As you learn German and navigate the diverse and fascinating German cultural traditions, remember, each candle on the cake represents another year of unique customs and joyful celebrations.