On Birthdays in Europe

Sunday was my birthday. They do it different here.

There is one big birthday superstition - no celebrating before the big day. I think German caution requires that you must make it to the birthday first (read it in your best German regulatory voice). Anything else is pure speculation. I was congratulated on Friday night at our office party due to the mistaken impression that my birthday had been the Sunday before. The person was horrified to discover it was actually two days away and kept apologizing.

There is a one big birthday requirement - you must celebrate your birthday. Sounds easy enough, right? Just show up at your party and all is good. Your friends take care of the rest. Actually not. You must throw and pay for your own party. It is considered rude not to. Usually there are two parts, the work party and the friend party.

For the work party you bring yourself a cake or other goodies, announce to all your colleagues it is your birthday and they should come have a treat on you. The first time I brought breakfast to work for the team, about 10 people stopped by and asked, Oh! Is it your birthday today? I was completely confused, wondering why everyone kept asking. Apparently your birthday is the only time you should do something nice here for your colleagues.

The friend party is a similar concept, except you might invite everyone to dinner and drinks, coffee and cake at your house, or perhaps a party out somewhere. And you, yes, you, pick up the whole tab. No one even offers to help pay. Happy Birthday indeed.

Another difference between US and German birthdays is the mad rush at midnight on the day of your birthday to be the first to offer congratulations. The phone starts ringing, SMS's come pouring in and usually by 1 AM you have heard from nearly everyone you know. I remember the first birthday after I met M., he called me at 12:00:00 US time (got up at 6 AM in Frankfurt) to wish me happy birthday. I thought he was exceptionally thoughtful or perhaps a little obsessed!

So my birthday went down like this this year. I had one accidental early birthday wish. On Saturday M. and I went to my favorite French restaurant in Munich for an early birthday dinner. At midnight, L. and B. came down to the apartment for a champagne toast (and gave me an AWESOME fondue set). On Sunday, M. and I went to Nürnberg Christmas markt - my birthday wish. I decided to buy a Nürnberg Früchte Brot to share with everyone at work on Monday to try out the host my own party tradition.

I got to work very late on Monday (due to more time spent at the Tortureamt & The Place that Shall not be Named*) and chickened out of telling everyone to come for birthday bread. I decided just to share it without any mention of birthday. It just felt too weird. I mean can you imagine in the US bringing your own cake to work and asking people to celebrate? They would think you were desperate or ridiculously self-centered. Plus the bread had wrapping paper stuck all over it. I don't know why they wrap a sticky fruit bread in paper but it does not end well. On second thought, it may have stuck because I fell asleep on it in the hot plane.

Then today (two days after my birthday), I held my first team meeting with my new team. I was completely focused on making a good first meeting with my new team. When there were about 15 minutes left to the meeting there was a knock on the door. It opened and there was a mob of people out in the hallway standing behind a big strawberry covered cake with candles on it.

I told them we were busy with a meeting, they would have to find another place for their party. And by the way, who is the cake for? Then I realized - they were bringing it in for me! Oops! They brought me cake and I was mean to them.

So, meeting derailed, they all came in and we had cake - American style! I think the new team liked the first meeting.

*M.'s name for the Tortureamt. I like that even better!

Posted from Basel


J said...

Belated Happy Birthday!

Rositta said...

Also a belated Happy Birthday from me. My relatives in Germany always forget the time difference and I have had calls in the middle of the night. Now they get it right and no one calls before 9 am. I know all about those customs also so I usually have cake and stuff for people that drop in...ciao
ps. love Christmas markets, we don't have those here.

C N Heidelberg said...

Happy birthday!!

"I mean can you imagine in the US bringing your own cake to work and asking people to celebrate? They would think you were desperate or ridiculously self-centered."

Genau... This is why I just. Could. Not. Do. It. I had all the best intentions but when it came down to it, I could not bring myself to make a deal out of my own freaking birthday! Unfortunately my coworkers found out about it anyway (thank you secretary) and they probably think I am an asshole. But at least I don't feel like one - and I would have if I tooted my own horn about my birthday.

How nice of them to accomadate you American-style!!

vailian said...

Happy Birthday (Nachträglich, as they say here)!
I had forgotten the cultural differences between the US and Germany on birthdays, thanks for reminding me!
In my workplace, the chances of your getting away with NOT bringing at least some cake (and this traditionally includes champagne and juice as well) are made slimmer by the fact that the orchestral committee has all birthdays in their records and get up at the beginning of rehearsal and ANNOUNCE the fact.. this is followed by a short fanfare played by the whole band.
(In years when I have been feeling misanthropic, I have been known to resort to scheduling so that I don't have to work on my birthday)
By the way, beware of those birthdays that end in 0 (30,40 etc.) because then you are expected to have a specially extravagent celebration. My girlfriend turned 50 last month and she was in agony about how to arrange the party (there was talk of renting a venue, etc., which would have run into the thousands of Euros). I said we had to escape the country, which in the end we did (we were in Budapest and Prague) but the guilt she amassed was so great that she ended up throwing a big party a few weeks later anyhow (but smaller than the one she had originally planned).

aimee said...

wow - indeed i cannot imagine throwing myself a birthday party. as a matter of fact, we talked rather viciously about a woman on the team who always announced her "birthday month" and pronounced her rude (behind her back of course) for her arrogance.

how thoughtful of your team to have a cake for you! (and not talk about you behind your back)

happy belated birthday!!

Carmen Santiago said...

Happy Birthday M.E.S.

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Michelle said...

All, Thanks for the birthday wishes! Was a good one :) or at least better than the alternative

Gardner said...

Very nice description of the B-day tradition in Germany.

Also, happy B-day.

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Happy Belated birthday and Merry Christmas