For all their famed hyper-rationality, Germans are surprisingly superstitious about birthdays. Extended good wishes and kind thoughts about their continued health before the stroke of midnight on the exact anniversary of their birth will be met with an awkward laugh and a face that says, “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
The consequences of an early birthday wish could just be run-of-the-mill bad luck or, in the more rural parts of the country, something as dire as blue children. Best not to risk it.
Once you’ve established to correct time to extend birthday greeting, the decision is how to do so. In almost all circumstance, a simple Happy Birthday (Alles Gute zum Geburtstag) works, but if you want to be extra fancy, you can try:
If you find yourself writing a card or want to impress a gchat/Whatsapp correspondent, copy and paste one of these little bits of lovely.
For extra credit, select the appropriate greeting from the area of Germany the object of your good wishes is either currently located in or originally from. This is advanced level and completely unnecessary, but a thoughtful touch if you can pull it off.
Germans get somewhere in the region of 28 days holiday from work each year, so taking a day off for your birthday, or at the very least cancelling non-social evening appointments is a normal thing to do.
In Germany, birthdays are your chance to treat your friends. If you’re at work, you are expected to bring your own cake or birthday snacks. If you are meeting friends for drinks after work or are organising a more formal dinner at a restaurant, your guests will expect you to pay the bill. Of course, not everyone can afford a big splash out, so it’s also fine to say that you’ll pay for the drinks or just the beer when everyone goes out for dinner.
Birthday parties are held either after the actual birthday (for reasons outlined in the first paragraph) or the day before the birthday. If it is the day before the actual birthday, guests are expected to stay until midnight to help the birthday boy or girl ring in their special day. The name for this – reinfeier – means celebrating in, and it’s serious business. Just like New Year’s Eve, someone will watch the time, round everyone up for a countdown and then initiate the toast to the birthday person.
It is also usual for guests at a birthday party to bring presents for the guest of honour. Normally these are small, thoughtful presents that are given without a big show. If you don’t know the birthday person very well, a modest bunch of flowers or a nice bottle of liquor will do.
A small warning: if the birthday in question is at the end of September and you find yourself in deepest Bavaria for the occasion, you might find yourself in the middle of a celebration like this. Just ride the wave and have another beer.