As we get older, we often tend to downsize our birthday parties or try to let the day slip by unnoticed. In some cases it's because we don't want to be reminded of the passage of time, but in other cases it's more of a reluctance to celebrate ourselves or to draw attention to ourselves for no particular reason.
I feel mixed about this.
On the one hand, it just feels like... too much?
But on the other hand, why shouldn't we celebrate ourselves? It's wonderful to be alive, breathing this fresh air, enjoying good health, and good friends. Truthfully, there is no better reason to celebrate, and it's the one thing that every person on this earth can celebrate, so why not embrace it? We don't all get to celebrate a wedding, or a graduation, or some huge professional achievement. But dammit all, we were all born and we can all take one small day to revel in that....
Okay, I'm not sure that's why Germans are so devoted to celebrating birthdays, but it seems as good a reason as any.
So I'm talking myself into respecting this strong cultural tradition of birthday parties, and part of that means learning all the customs related to birthdays in Germany (and there are a lot). So here is what I have picked up so far:
1. Your birthday starts exactly at the stroke of midnight on the night before the calendar day you were born, and thus many people plan the "big" party for that moment, rather than the actual night of their birthday. It's kind of like New Year's Eve.
2. You should never wish a person happy birthday before the clock strikes midnight - no points for being "early"! It's considered bad luck.
3. It's customary to give gifts for birthdays here. Even if you were just invited out to dinner or a bar, you should bring a small gift.
4. It's not expected that you will pay for the birthday girl/boy's dinner or buy them drinks - in fact, it's often the case that they will pay because they invited you for their birthday.
5. Thus, birthdays can be really expensive.
6. Sometimes people rent out entire bars for their birthdays. Not just rich people. Normal people too.
7. And at work, it's the custom to bring a cake or some baked goods for your own birthday. And many people send out a meeting invite for people to come by and share the cake and have a glass of Sekt at a specified time for the birthday celebration during the work day.
8. That is, if they go to work. It's also quite accepted to take a day off work on your birthday.
9. People put all of their colleagues' and friends' birthdays into their calendars so that they do not forget to wish them happy birthday. This is considered quite important and a gesture of good friendship or politeness.
10. And if you forget to wish your friends happy birthday.... it kind of means that you are a bad friend. You should pay attention to these things!
So, if you ever befriend a German and you don't understand why they are upset with you for not acknowledging their birthday, or not bringing a gift... this explains it. Those are major cultural missteps. Of course, most Germans are super nice about such blunders, recognizing and forgiving, though they may also not realize that it is not the custom to bring gifts or host your own party in other places... I've had to explain this many times.
Maybe I should just stop explaining, but instead just join in and start celebrating?