Germans have a weird approach to birthdays. In most places a birthday is a time to celebrate, to drink one too many shots of tequila, pretend to be a unicorn and then stare deeply into the depths of a kebab and profess your undying love. No? Just me then? Okay…
While Germans will initially lead you to believe that they’re on board with all of the above, all evidence points to the contrary. In fact to the keen observer it might seem like, for the Munich locals, birthdays are just an excuse to crush your soul. This happens in four easy steps:
Step 1: Pre-birthday silence
Your birthday is coming up. You get to work, chirping about your “birthday week.” Silence. “It’s a big round birthday so I want to do something special,” you continue undeterred.
The second you stop talking, your German colleagues immediately begin discussing the dangers of drafts.
You’re blissfully unaware, but this is step one of the birthday soul destruction process. German superstition dictates that wishing someone a happy birthday before their actual birthday is bad and also illogical. As we know, Germans despise any departure from logic… except when it comes to the birthday song, but more on that later. The reasons for the silence are:
- You weren’t born yet. Birthday wishes won’t start until the anniversary of the moment you crowned.
- It’s bad luck. Offering well wishes before any kind of event is just asking for something to go terribly wrong.
- There’s no cake. You’ll get your birthday wishes when you bring your own birthday cake and not a second sooner.
Which leads nicely to…
Step 2: The thing with the cake
You’ve made peace with the silence but now it’s the morning of your birthday. The sun is shining a little brighter than normal. You ignore the way your hip creaks as you get out of bed, feel around for your dentures and grab your walking frame. Ha! Just kidding. But perhaps you give a fleeting thought to your age. No worries, you tell yourself, there’ll be birthday cake at work today!
Okay, pseudo wrong. There will be a birthday cake if you bring it. That’s right folks, in Munich the birthday girl or boy is expected to bring their own birthday cake. If you don’t provide the cake, you will get no cake. You may, however, get a few quizzical, maybe judgemental looks. Several of your colleagues will be disappointed that you didn’t bring them cake. “It IS your birthday,” they’ll argue with their eyes and eyebrows, without saying a word. Soon after a little piece of your soul will blow you a kiss and float away to hang out with butterflies.
Side note: very few bakeries sell proper birthday cake (just in case you thought you might grab one on the way).
- Learn to bake.
- Check out Rischart (you may be in luck).
- Ice-cream cake from the supermarket wooo!
- Pretend it’s not really your birthday.
Step 3: The birthday song
You don’t give up easily. You’re an enterprising go-getter, so you find a cake and skip into work, your spirits only slightly shaken. Beware, this is when step three of the assault happens: the birthday song. For reasons unencumbered by logic, Germans get a kick out of singing the birthday song in English, but pronouncing “birthday” as “birzzzday” (even though they know better). It’s weird.
The German version is an improvement. It goes, “Zum Geburtstag viel Glück, zum Geburtstag viel Glück, zum Geburtstag liebe (your name), zum Gerburtstag viel Glück.” While it may initially sound like the singers are wishing you luck for your birthday in a vaguely ominous and threatening way, actually, they just want you to be happy.
There is a third option, favoured by younger Germans. It goes, “Happy birzzzday to you, Marmelade im Schuh, Aprikose in der Hose und eine Bratwurst dazu.” In English, “Happy birthday to you, marmalade in the shoe, apricot in the pants and a sausage to go with it.” There’s not much to say about that, is there?
Step 4: The question of payment
It is your birthday and it’s going to take more than a terrifying choir of Germans singing around a birthday cake that you paid for to get you down, isn’t it? Well, guess who has two thumbs and is footing the bill for after-work birthday drinks? Yup, you. As far as Germans are concerned, it would be impolite to ask people – especially those you’ve never actually exchanged a word with – to pay for their own beverages. It is your birthday after all. Eyes. Eyebrows. You know the drill. Any invitation to drink is an invitation to your wallet.
Think you’ll escape paying if you organise a birthday event outside of work? Nope, try again. Your German pals will still expect you to pay. The only way to maybe mitigate spending your life savings on your birthday guests, is to let everyone know that you will be celebrating in accordance with your culture, which doesn’t involve paying for drinks. Bring cash just in case – you’ll probably need it.
By step four your soul will have been crushed, but you’ll barely notice.
Germans are also great fun, so you will have your cake and your tequila, you will unleash on the dance floor and you will slur, “You know what? You are my best friend. No, really. YOU are my BEST friend,” to your greasy kebab.
Agnes Stockburger is a writer, editor and published author. In her glory days she wrote for the likes of Australian Broker, SheKnows and Yahoo!7. These days you’re more likely to find her sticking Duplo blocks in the fridge and the milk in the mailbox because OMG her kids will NOT sleep. She has lived in Munich for six years, has two dirndls and gave birth in German. Twice. This obviously qualifies her to write about the local culture with impunity.
Illustration credit: Yolanda Ng is a cross creative who is a professional fashion designer, stylist, street style blogger for VON ZWEI and a photographer at Corner Store Photography. She is also the Creative and Marketing Director for LMBB.
Photo credit: Marelis Barrios is the proud founder and owner of Marelis Photography. In her work she focuses on maternity and family photography.