Happy birthday in German & German customs and traditions

Happy birthday in German & German customs and traditions

I am sure that you have already been invited to a birthday party or to a wedding. Being in your home country you know what to do and what to say on these occasions. But how to say “Congratulations” or “All the best” in German? And eventually how to dress, how to behave? No clue at all? Don’t worry! By the end of this article, you will be prepared for (almost) any relevant occasion in a German’s life and you will blend into the German society like a ninja.

How to say “Congratulations” in German

I think that in general there are many occasions in life to celebrate. Even though the events to be celebrated in one’s life vary in each culture, there are some “general” life events: the birth of a child, the first day in school, coming of age, weddings and anniversaries. And let’s not forget promotions. 

You will not be surprised that Germans very likely share some cultural events with your own culture. However, it is also a good opportunity to learn about rather unfamiliar cultural celebrations. On the one hand it will help you to improve your German language skills and on the other hand it may give you the opportunity to learn and understand more about German traditions and German culture. 

Most commonly used German phrases for congratulating someone

When talking about congratulations there are two German verbs which always appear and that you should know: “wünschen” (=to wish) and “gratulieren” (=to congratulate).

The verb “wünschen” derives from the noun “Wunsch” (m). The Old High German word for “Wunsch” was “wunsc” and it is related to the Old High German verb “winnan” which turned into “gewinnen” (=to win). But today it’s only used in the sense of making a wish.

The German word “gratulieren” derives from the Latin word gratulari which means “joy, to express participation, to wish good luck”. In other words, congratulations are a joyful act of expressing empathy. “gratulieren” demands the dative case:


Ich wünsche dir (Dat) alles Gute (Akk)!
I wish you all the best!

Ich wünsche dir ein frohes neues Jahr!
I wish you a happy new year!

Ich gratuliere dir (Dat) zum Geburtstag (zu+Dat).
I congratulate you on your birthday.

Ich gratuliere dir (Dat) zur bestandenen Prüfung (zu+Dat).
I congratulate you on passing the exam.

The good news is that German-speakers like to get straight to the point and therefore they like abbreviations! Sometimes it only takes two words to congratulate someone. That means for example instead of saying “Ich wünsche dir alles Gute!” you can simply say (or write) “Alles Gute!”. And instead of saying “Ich gratuliere dir…” you could easily say “Gratulation!” (=Congratulations) or “Gratuliere (dir)!” ([I] congratulate [you]). 

The one phrase which always works (except for funerals and recovery wishes) is: Herzlichen Glückwunsch! – Congratulations! (Literally it means “heartily lucky-wish”).

You can either just say “Herzlichen Glückwunsch” or extend it. 


Herzlichen Glückwunsch zur Geburt!
Congratulations on the birth! 

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag!
Happy birthday!

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum bestandenen Führerschein!
Congratulations on getting your driver’s licence!

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zur Hochzeit!
Congratulations on your wedding!

You could also just say “Glückwunsch” (=congrats) but a little care must be applied here as it is rather informal and can be used also in an ironic context. For example, if a friend who always runs late, tells you that he made it on time to work today, you could simply say: “Glückwunsch!”. However, having a big smile on your face, just saying “Glückwunsch” works in most cases because as so often “der Ton macht die Musik”.

Another phrase which almost works at any time and you might already know is “Alles Gute” – “All the best”. Like “Herzlichen Glückwunsch” you can use it on its own or extend it.


Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!
All the best for your birthday!

Alles Gute zur Verlobung!
All the best for your engagement!

Alles Gute zur Geburt!
All the best for the birth!

Other Occasions for Celebrations in Germany

There are numerous reasons you might want to express your joy and well-wishings in German.

Die Geburt – Birth

The birth of a child is without a doubt a huge life event. Unlike in other cultures, this event is not celebrated with a special party in Germany. But even though there is no special celebration on this occasion, one congratulates and makes presents, such as small cuddly toys or a baby’s romper suit (pay attention to the color). However, it is becoming more and more popular to have a “Welcome Baby Party” or during the pregnancy a “Baby Shower Party”. The fact that a German expression for these events does not exist shows that this a quite new and still rare thing. 

When congratulating on a birth the most commonly used phrases in German are:

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zur Geburt! / Herzliche Glückwünsche zur Geburt! 
Congratulation(s) on the birth! 

Both have the same meaning. The only difference is, that the first one is used in singular and the second one in plural.

Alles Gute den frisch gebackenen Eltern!
All the best for the new parents!

“Frisch gebacken” means literally “freshly baked” and is here used in the sense of very new.

Alles Gute!
All the best!

If you would like to write a card, “Alles Gute zur Geburt” would do the job nicely.

Der Geburtstag – Birthday

In many cultures it is common today to celebrate one’s birthday. But this was not always the case. Here’s a bit of interesting history that I learned doing my research for this article:

The modern custom of celebrating birthdays originates from the culture of Ancient Egypt and the ancient culture of the Romans and Greeks. The Egyptians held their birthday celebrations in honour of the Pharaoh. Whereas, the Greeks and Romans, used birthday celebrations to invoke guardian spirits to protect the celebrated person from evil. The birthday presents were a sacrifice for the guardian spirit. Therefore, for a very long time the Christian Church regarded birthday celebrations as heresy and idolatry. Until the 19th century, there were only a few private birthday celebrations which were only found in higher social classes and which were an expression of social status. [1]

But who still cares today? Hardly anyone! And some of the old customs have been preserved. For example, burning candles are supposed to keep away demons. Nowadays, it is common to get a cake with as many candles on it as one has turned old (the older you get, the less candles you want) and the candles have to be blown out in a single go. Only then you can make a wish, but without telling anyone, because otherwise your wish will not come true. The beloved birthday presents were, as already mentioned above, initially a sacrificial offering to the guardian spirit. Today almost everyone loves to receive lovingly and beautifully wrapped gifts without thinking of any spirit.

Whereas it is in Germany to be considered to bring bad luck when congratulating someone before his birthday, it is in parts of Austria common to celebrate on the evening before the birthday. However, it is also common in Germany to gather at the evening before the birthday and to wait until midnight. The Germans call that “reinfeiern” (literally “to celebrate into the reason for the celebration”. Once someone invites you and tells you: “Ich feier’ (in meinen Geburtstag) rein” you know that you should stay at least until midnight. Once it is midnight, you congratulate the birthday child and sing them a “Ständchen” (=birthday serenade, litterally: a little stand(ing)). Like in many other countries, in Germany the most common song is the English “Happy birthday to you”. There is however a German version of this song which goes like this:

Zum Geburtstag viel Glück.
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück.
Zum Geburtstag, lieber Michael,
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück. 

How to congratulate a German to their birthday

The most common German birthday wishes are:

Happy birthday! 
(I guess, no need to translate…)

Herzlichen Glückwunsch (zum Geburtstag)!
Lit. Heartily Luckwish to-the birthday or simply
Congratulations for your birthday

Alles Gute und Liebe (zum Geburtstag)!
All the best and love (on your birthday)!

Viel Glück zum Geburtstag!
Best wishes for your birthday!
Lit. “Good luck for your birthday!”

Should you ever get tired of using the same phrases over and over again you could also use the following nonsense but funny one:
“Viel Geburtstag zum Glück!” (=Lots of birthdays for your luck) or share this fabulously inappropriate song with the Geburtstagskind: Alles Schlechte zum Geburtstag by Bert Kallenbach.

Special birthdays in German-speaking countries are the one when one turns 18 and all birthdays where the number of years to be celebrated ends in a zero. The latter are called “runde Geburtstage” (=round birthdays).

By reaching the age of 18, one becomes “volljährig” (=coming of age), meaning a person is considered to be an adult by law. Until 1974 in the Federal Republic of Germany that age was 21. That is why some (former Western German) families still celebrate the 21st birthday as a special one. In the DDR (=GDR), one came of age with 18 already in 1950. 

Die Einschulung – First day of school 

Do you remember your first day at school? I do for sure! Maybe this is because my family took plenty of pictures of me and my “Schultüte”. Now, let me explain this very specific German thing, the Schultüte. No that’s not a bag for school. Patience my young friend, Geduld. For the first day at school, the so-called “Einschulung” (lit. schooling in), the school children receive a “Schultüte” which literally means “school bag”. But the Schultüte isn’t a normal bag! It is a cone-shaped cardboard bag which contains stationery, such as pens, erasers and rulers, toys and sweets. At times parents also torture their child by putting healthy stuff inside. Kids want sweets, mom. It is probably meant to make the first day of school unforgettable and over all exciting. It can only go down from there though. 

The custom of giving a school bag to a child started at the beginning of the 19th century in Saxony and Thuringia. From there it gradually spread throughout Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. According to some researchers, the custom became widespread through a children’s book from 1852. The book, which was written by Moritz Heger, and which has the very long title “Zuckertütenbuch für alle Kinder, die zum ersten Mal in die Schule gehen” (“Sugar bag book for all children attending school for the first time”) says that there is a special tree in the school cellar from which the teacher picks a bag for the well-behaved pupils. [2]

Alles Gute zum ersten Schultag! (Ich wünsche dir viel Spaß.)
All the best for the 1st day at school! (I wish you lots of fun.)

Viele Glückwünsche zur Einschulung!
Many congratulations on your first day at school!

Der Abschluss von etwas – Graduation of some sort

Time flies. Not long ago you were congratulated on your first day at school and now it is already time to send best wishes for your graduation. A huge event for students all over the world is the graduation from school or university. German students make no exception here. When receiving (hopefully!) a passing grade, they smell the scent of freedom (haha, just kidding) and they feel that the world belongs to them. Especially the “Abitur” (high school examination usually taken at the end of the 12th or 13th year of what we call Gymnasium – no, that’s not the place where you workout your body), which gives one the opportunity to apply at the university, is a congratulatory event. Usually the graduating classes hold a celebration to which teachers and parents are invited and most of them get dressed up nicely. It is also common for the graduating class to organise a so-called “Abiturstreich” (Abitur prank) at school. On this day, students are allowed (usually at least) to drink at school and barricade classrooms and/or make fun games with the teachers.

Alles Gute zum bestandenen Abitur!
All the best for passing the Abitur exam

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum bestandenen Abitur!
Congratulations on passing the Abitur exam!

Die Kommunion/ die Konfirmation – Communion/ Confirmation

During the communion young Catholics, usually at the age of 9, take part in the Holy Communion for the first time.

The Confirmation (the word derives from the Latin word firmare which means “fortification, affirmation”) on the other hand is a solemn act of blessing in most Protestant churches. The blessing marks the transition into church adulthood. The confirmation usually takes place at the age of 14.

It’s worth noting though, that the Catholics also celebrate an event called Firmung, which serves the same purpose as the Protestants’ Konfirmation. It’s just less of an event. I only got a towel for my Firmung while my Protestant colleagues got a Lambo. Just kidding. But I was disappointed nevertheless as for me those events held little to no spiritual meaning. Little did I know of God and his need for confirmation.

Die Jugendweihe

The Jugendweihe is a secular coming-of-age ceremony which was mainly celebrated in the DDR (=GDR). Thus, it is not aligned to any religion. The aim is to prepare teenagers for their life as adults. The celebration of the Jugendweihe goes back to the 19th century, when non-religious groups in Germany wanted a celebration comparable to the Christian Confirmation. This tradition was later adopted by the labour movement and was therefore also very widely spread in the GDR as a substitute for church festivals. Since the German reunification, the term “Jugendfeier” (youth celebration) is used too, in order to distinguish from the “Jugendweihe” tradition of the GDR. Nowadays, such coming-of-age events are also popular in other countries, such as Norway, Iceland or Czechia.  

Verlobung & Hochzeit – Engagement & wedding

For some people getting married is one of their most cherished aims in life. Unlike in some cultures, an engagement is less celebrated than a wedding. Nowadays, in the time of social media, it has become popular to simply post a picture that shows a ring on the future bride’s or groom’s hand.

The Ceremony

Weddings in German-speaking countries are as heterogeneous as its inhabitants. Some like to hold a big event with lots of guests, an enormous amount of food (and an enormous amount of expenses) and an entertainment program which we know from the Oscar awards. Others like to get married a bit more in private with just a bunch of closely related or befriended people and some just like to escape and spend the wedding day in Zweisamkeit. Most of the brides wear a white dress. 

What gifts to make

Since most of the couples already live together before getting married, it is common to give money as a present to the wedding instead of buying stuff for their household. The money is handed over together with the greeting card or creatively packed as a gift. At times the happy couple makes a list of items they’d like to have and share that with the wedding guests beforehand. This way they won’t end up with 3 blenders and 5 cheese graters.

There are plenty of phrases you can use for congratulating on a wedding. In the following are just a few examples.

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zur Hochzeit!
Congratulations on your wedding!

Alles Gute und Liebe zur Hochzeit!
All the best and love for your wedding!

Wir wünschen Euch von ganzem Herzen, dass ihr für immer so glücklich bleibt, wie am heutigen Tag!
With all our heart we wish that you’ll always stay as happy as you are today!

Für euren gemeinsamen Lebensweg wünschen wir euch alles Gute, Glück und ewige Liebe!
We wish you all the best, luck and eternal love for your life together!

Die Beförderung – Promotion

One of your colleagues has been promoted? Even if you think she doesn’t deserve it, congratulate her nevertheless. It’s not pretty to be petty:

Glückwunsch zu deiner Beförderung.
Congratulations on your promotion.

Glückwunsch zu deinem neuen Job.
Congratulations on your new job.

Gut gemacht!
Well done!

Ich freue mich für dich.
I’m happy for you.

In Rente gehen – Retirement

If someone you know goes into their well-deserved retirement you could say: 

Glückwunsch zu deinem Ruhestand.
Congratulations on your retirement.

Silvester – New Year’s Eve with an i not a y.

In all countries using the Gregorian calendar, the 31st of December is New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve is followed by New Year’s Day (Neujahrstag, m).

The end of year was already celebrated in the Roman Empire, for the first time at the beginning of 153 BC.

In German-speaking countries, at midnight, you will hear fireworks, firecrackers and bells ring. In the pre-Christian-animistic belief, fireworks were once supposed to drive away “evil spirits”. 

During New Year’s Eve a widespread tradition is the so-called Bleigießen (n). One pours molten lead into cold water and then tries to read the future/fortune from the random shape of the re-hardened lead.

Once it is midnight and the new year has arrived, usually people open a bottle of sparkling wine and “man stößt an” (=to clink glasses) sharing the good wishes below. 

Some of the churches also offer nocturnal services.

The days before the New Year’s Day it is common to wish “Guten Rutsch!” which can be translated with “Happy New Year”. While the noun “Rutsch, m” nowadays means “the slide” and belongs to the verb “rutschen” (to slip, to move), linguists haven’t agreed yet on the true origin of this expression. 

Be aware that you can only use it a few days and hours before it turns midnight on 31st of December.

From midnight onwards you can say the following:

Frohes neues (Jahr)!
Happy new year!

It is also common just to say “Frohes Neues!”

Gute-Besserungswünsche & Beileidsbekundungen – Recovery wishes and statement of condolences 

Life does not always gives us reasons to celebrate. There are also sickness and death that need to be considered. 

With recovery wishes we express our sympathy and compassion towards the sick person. The sincere wish for a good recovery gives the ill person the feeling that someone is thinking of her. 

The most common phrase in German for saying “Get well soon” is “Gute Besserung”. This expression can be used for family and friends as well as for colleagues and business partners. A more formal way which is for example suitable for business partners is: “Ich wünsche ihnen baldige Genesung” which can be translated with “I wish you a quick recovery”. “Werden Sie schnelle wieder gesund.” would be another formal way of expressing one’s empathy.

Mostly joking and ironic, as a response to a recovery wish, is the phrase “Unkraut vergeht nicht” which can be translated with “weeds do not die away” in the sense that nothing bad can happen to a person like the one that’s sick and therefore there is no need to worry. Interesting fact: the use of the word “Unkraut” for good-for-nothing people dates back to the Middle Ages (1230) [3].

Beerdigungen – Funerals 

In case you need to attend a funeral or you would like to express your sympathy you could say or write for example the following.

Mein herzliches Beileid. 
My sincere condolences.

or if you want to show off your German at this occasion, you could say or write:

Ich möchte Ihnen hiermit mein aufrichtiges Mitgefühl und tiefe Anteilnahme übermitteln. Meine Gedanken sind bei Ihnen und Ihrer Familie.
I would like to convey my sincere sympathy and deepest sympathy to you. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Unser Mitgefühl gehört dir/ Ihnen und deiner/ Ihrer Familie.
Our sympathy belongs to you (informal/formal)  and your (informal/formal) family.

The dress code for funerals in Germany is usually elegant clothes in black color. 

Trinksprüche – Toasts

Lust but not least: no celebration without drinking! Here is a fine selection of German toasts:


Zum Wohl!
For the well-being!

Auf dich/ uns/ euch!
To you (sg.)/ us/ you (pl.)!

And for older men:


The last one is a funny one and should only be used with friends. “Prostata” means “prostate” but since it sounds very similar to “Prost” some people use it also for saying cheers. 


This is also an amusing one even though the original meaning of “Stößchen” is a beer in a small slim glass which widens towards the top. The “Stößchen” is a Dortmund speciality. However, in German it sounds funny. This might be because it sounds like the diminutive form (> -chen”) of “Stoß” (push) which here has a sexual connotation.


Whatever and with whomever you are celebrating, now you definitely know all necessary phrases in German to express your best wishes and you also are now aware of the cultural characteristics of German celebrations. Of course there are not only big occasions or huge life events to celebrate. Even starting to learn German is worth celebrating! Learning a new language is always an exciting endeavour. It’s a reason to be proud of yourself. After you have accomplished your tasks for today why don’t you congratulate yourself by saying out loud:

Das hast du gut gemacht. 
Well done. or

Gute Arbeit
Good work

In that sense: Alles Liebe und bis zum nächsten Artikel.

Written by Angelina

[1] https://de.linkfang.org/wiki/Geburtstag
[2] https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article145796072/Soziologen-warnen-vor-Schultuete-als-Statussymbol.html
[3] https://www.redensarten-index.de/suche.php?suchbegriff=~~Unkraut%20vergeht%20nicht&bool=relevanz&sp0=rart_ou