Photo: Jonas Bodenhöfer
1. No one mentions your birthday until it’s your birthday.
In Germany, mentioning someone’s birthday before the date is considered bad luck. If your German friends are nice enough to give you a birthday present, don’t open it until your actual day. Or at least don’t tell them you opened it before your actual day.
If you’re sending someone a gift, make sure to write “GEBURTSTAG” in all-caps, red-alert style, so they don’t inadvertently open it a few days early and bring unknown horrors upon themselves.
2. You buy your own cake.
Given how silent everyone is pre-birthday, you may be tempted to drift right through the day unnoticed. Particularly if you’re at work, things will get awkward around the early afternoon when everyone expects a cake and you don’t deliver. In Germany, this custom is referred to as einen ausgeben.
If your coworker drops by to wish you “Alles Gutes zum Geburtstag” (all the best for your birthday), the jig is up. You’re going to need to get that cake. Stall for time by requesting a pre-cake cigarette to ponder your advancing age and eventual doom. Everyone in Germany smokes and is a little morbid, so this won’t seem too out of the ordinary. Sprint out the door to the nearest bakery, buy the first Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (black forest cherry cake) you see, and throw it on the office coffee table before anyone catches on.
3. You organize (and pay for) your own party.
There are pros and cons to this one. Cons first. 1. Party planning is annoying. 2. Buying food and drink for all your friends is a lot of money. And 3. It’s your damn birthday! Aren’t people supposed to be celebrating you?!
On the positive side, you get to have total control over what you do on your birthday and who celebrates with you — no randoms invited.
4. Your celebration seems to personally offend every German in sight, even the ones who are participating in it.
Get used to that prickly, “I’m-being-watched” feeling, because more often than not, your German neighbor/fellow tram passenger/coworker is expressionlessly, dispassionately observing your every move. It’s such a startling thing for most outsiders that the German Der Spiegel, one of the largest publications in Europe, wrote a whole article about the phenomenon.
So don’t let the ocular pat-down worry you, that’s just how they do it in Germany.
5. If you’re single and turning 30, you are forced to advertise your housekeeping skills.
As a last-ditch attempt to save you from unmarried oldsterdom, your friends will have you do some very public (and possibly drunken) chores to let all the other single ladies and sirs know you’re skilled and available.
If you’re a guy, your friends will find a messy staircase for you to sweep. Women will be required to clean doorknobs with a toothbrush. When potential soulmates cruise by, they’ll get to admire the goods and evaluate your housekeeping skills all at once. Chores can be reduced if you’re willing to trade a few kisses.
6. If you’re a kid, you get a break.
Kids get to enjoy some much-needed R&R on their birthdays. They don’t have any chores or homework on that day, so they’re free to chill out and catch up on some reading.
For German kids, the birthday candles don’t go on their cake. Instead, each child has a fancy wooden wreath holding a candle for each year up to age 12 (plus one in the middle for good luck). This wreath sits on the family’s dining room table on the child’s birthday.
7. You have an awesome time.
Beer, cake, no homework, and friends who can be tricked into making out with you? Sounds pretty fantastic. As the 94-year-old man who busted out of a Munich hospital to head to a beer hall on his Geburtstag could tell you, Germans are serious about birthdays.