Today, one of our neighbors celebrated his 60th birthday. The family rented the Gemindeshafthaus, or town hall, for the occasion. This building is conveniently located across from our house, and we were invited. The festivities began with Lothar, the birthday boy, standing outside behind a table filled with glasses and bottles of champagne. As each guest arrived, they were given a glass for a toast. After family photographs, dinner was served, and shortly afterward, the local Oompah band marched up the platz to play. This is Germany, after all. And yes, beer!
This got me thinking about birthdays and the various traditions we’ve seen in different countries. Here in Bavaria, while they celebrate birthdays yearly, large parties are held for the 30th and 60th birthdays. In our time here, parties have been held for several people in the village. Most of my friends and I celebrated our 25th and 50th birthdays. I suppose this way; the Bavarians avoid terms like quarter-century or half-century.
Birthdays are also important to German children, and they celebrate from sunup to sundown. The child is free from any chores or schoolwork for the day. Many historians claim the origin of the birthday party with a cake topped with candles comes from Germany. And while you often hear the English song, Happy Birthday being sung, there are versions in German, too.
To wish someone a happy birthday in German, you say, “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!” This translates to ‘all good things on your birthday.’ However, one thing you never do is wish a German happy birthday early, not before midnight, anyway. To them, this is bad luck, so while they may wait a while after the day to celebrate, avoid saying anything ahead of time. And don’t be surprised if they accept a present and put it aside for later.
When we lived in Crete, Greece, birthdays passed with scarcely a mention. On Crete, everyone has a saint’s name, and it is this day that is celebrated there with plenty of traditional food and, of course, Greek wine. Our landlady knew every Saint’s Day and visited each person she knew on their day. We were invited on their name days each year and were often there eating, drinking, and listening to music until the wee hours of the morning. They sure know how to throw a party!
To wish a Greek a happy birthday, you say, “χαρούμενα γενέθλια,” pronounced charoúmena genéthlia. More often, in Crete, we heard “καλή χρονιά” (kalí chroniá meaning good year). And there, too, historians take credit for the worldwide tradition of a birthday cake with candles. They claim the origins date to ancient Greece when a round cake representing the moon was baked for Artemis, the goddess of the moon and childbirth. It, too, was lit with candles. According to legend, the Romans borrowed many traditions from the Greeks, this being one of them. So, who knows?
Since I mentioned the Romans, what about the Italians? We didn’t attend many birthday parties when we lived in Italy, but I know they were a reason for the whole family to get together. Unlike in the U. S. where your friends or family members might treat you to a birthday dinner or party, in Italy, you treat them. Since dining out can be costly, celebrations are often held at home. A present is traditionally expected, but Italians typically don’t exchange cards. And yes, there is cake! Though they have candles, they don’t usually have writing on them. The person inviting you to their party typically bakes or purchases the cake to share with everyone.
To wish someone a happy birthday in Italy, you would say, “Buon Compleanno!” wishing the person a good/happy complete year. The simple “Auguri!” or “Tanti Auguri” is often heard, meaning best wishes.
This has been a bittersweet post to write. I loved learning the traditions of other people wherever we’ve lived. One month today, we will be back in the United States, ending our third tour in Europe. I shall miss the countries we lived in and those we visited. It’s been quite a ride. As our household goods will be picked up next week, and I will return to the Roman dig on Malta in mid-June, before departing, I am taking a break from the weekly blog until July.
Bis später, alles Gute für Dich!
Until later, best wishes to you,