My husband’s birthday is fast approaching and it got me thinking about how people celebrate birthdays around the world. For my husband’s birthday, we like to invite family and friends to a picnic potluck. We ask that the guests bring food from their country of origin, or of a favorite place – we never had duplicate food this way, and the variety and grazing opportunites are incredible! The only guaranteed dish is the orange cake my husband insists on; its a childhood favorite that his mother made for him, and it is special for his birthday. A friend from Hong Kong recently told me about a great custom there: celebrating important birthdays for the men at 60, 70, and 80 years. For the women, 61, 71, and 81 are key ages to recognize. I assume they did not want any overlap hence the alternate years for men and women. I will have to dig up a more information about why these are special ages as I am curious. … so being curious, I researched birthday customs in several countries and cultures. Here are some of the facts that I’ve unearthed and I’ll add as I get more information.
Africa – In various African nations they hold initiation ceremonies for children instead of birthdays. When children reach a certain designated age, they learn the laws, beliefs, customs, songs and dances of their tribes.
Argentina – When girls turn 15 they have a huge party and dance the waltz with their fathers and other boys. Argentinean children also get their earlobes pulled for each year of the birthday.
Aruba – Children take a treat to school for their classmates and all teachers. Each teacher receives a treat and gives the birthday child a small gift like a pencil, an eraser or a postcard. The birthday child is also allowed to wear special clothes instead of the school uniform.
Australia – The Australian children have a special dish on their birthdays called “Fairy Bread”. This is a buttered bread covered with tiny, sprinkles known as “hundreds and thousands”. In Australia, too the handing over of the key is symbolical of coming of age when someone turns twenty-one.
Bolivia – At the age of 16 the birthday girl wears a white dress and dances the waltz with her father and other boys.
Brazil – The birthday child receives a pull on the earlobe for each year they have been alive. The birthday person also gives the first slice of cake to his/her closest friend or relative, usually mom or dad. At the age of 15, the girl waltzes with staring with her father and grandfather. She dances with 15 partners each symbolizing a year of her life.
Canada – In part of Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland) the birthday child is ambushed and their nose greased for good luck. The greased nose makes the child too slippery for bad luck to catch them. This tradition is reputed to be of Scottish decent. In Quebec, the birthday person receives a punch for each year they are alive and then one for good luck. (I could see where this one might get out of hand.)
China – When one is young, he or she will eat noodles – long noodles- before their birthday, as long noodles signify longevity. A birthday cake is consumed on the actual day. After middle age, his birthday celebration will be grander; in addition to the long noodles, peaches in various forms are added symbolizing longevity and immortality. The birthday child pays respect to his/her parents and receives a gift of money.
Cuba – The celebrations include food, decorations, gifts, piñatas, cake, candles, “happy birthday” song and games. Many people are invited including neighbors, friends, co-workers and family.
Denmark – A flag is flown outside a window to designate that someone who lives in that house is having a birthday. Presents are placed around the child’s bed while they are sleeping so they will see them immediately upon awakening. In Denmark, the celebration of “round” birthdays such as 20, 30, 40, etc. can boast an impressive guest list of hundreds of people.
Ecuador – When a girl turns 15 there is a great celebration and the girl wears a pink dress. The father puts on the birthday girl’s first pair of high heels and waltzes with her while 14 maids and 14 boys also dance the waltz.
England – Certain symbolic objects are mixed into the birthday cake as it being prepared. If your piece of cake has a coin in it, then you will be rich. If you find the thimble, alas your destined to be single. Also, when its your birthday your friends give you the “bumps” they lift you in the air by your hands and feet and raise you up and down to the floor, one for each year then one for luck, two for luck and three for the old man’s coconut!
Germany – A children’s birthday celebration is called a Geburtstagsparty. German children are never given any chores or homework on their birthdays. The house is decorated, and a wooden birthday wreath is placed on the dining table. The wreath contains small holes for candles and a holder in the center where the lifecandle is placed. It is a tall and beautifully embellished candle. A member of the family lights the candles at sunrise. The number of candles lit equals the age of the child. The candles are kept burning all day long. The birthday boy or the girl blows out the candles after dinner that night. The wish of the person comes true if all the candles are blown out in the first attempt. This meal is followed by the unwrapping of the presents and the party. A second curious custom, concerns single men of the “advanced” age of 30, and it involves sweeping the stairs of city hall. When men reach the age of 30 sans girlfriend they must sweep these stairs. To make it worse, all of their friends gather and throw trash just as they finish. This unusal method (at least to us in the US) is meant to show that he is single (girls come forward) and he is capable of good housework!
Ghana – Special foods are eaten: watche (brown rice and beans), sheto (black pepper), mecko (red pepper), red rice with corn beef and fufu (pounded yam and cassava).
Guyana – Chicken, duck or lamb curry with rice are the main dishes at the birthday celebration. A family member usually bakes a fruit, black or sponge for the birthday boy/girl to cut. The person celebrating their birthday will wear something fancy.
Holland – Special year birthdays such as 5, 10, 15, 20, 21 are called “crown” years. The birthday child receives an especially large gift on a crown year birthday. The family also decorates the birthday child’s chair at the dining room table with seasonal flowers, paper streamers, paper flowers and balloons. At school, the birthday child may give their classmates something to eat and the teacher makes the child a birthday hat. Children eat pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and taarties, served with lemonade or hot chocolate.
Hungary – When gifts are open, everyone pulls on the earlobes of the birthday person and says a little rhyme, which translates into English as follows “God bless you, live so long so your ears reach your ankles”.
India – At school, the birthday child wears colorful dress and passes out chocolates to their class with the help of a trusted friend.
Ireland – The birthday child is lifted upside down and “bumped” on the floor for good luck. The number of bumps corresponds to the child’s age plus one for extra good luck. Being handed over the key is considered an important sign of coming of age in Ireland. This takes place only when someone turns twenty one.
Israel – A small child sits in a chair while grown-ups raise and lower it a number of times corresponding to the child’s age, plus one for good luck.
Italy – The child’s ears are pulled the number of times to match their age.
Japan – The birthday child wears new clothes to mark the occasion. Certain birthdays are more important than others and these are celebrated with a visit to the local shrine.
Latvia – The birthday person sits in a chair and friends and family lift the chair one time for each year. The traditional birthday cake is a yellow cake called “klingeris”.
Lithuania – A garland is hung around the entire door of the home of the birthday person. The birthday person sits in a decorated chair and family members lift them up to three times.
Mexico – The piñata, usually made out of paper mache and in the form of an animal, is filled with goodies and hung from the ceiling. The birthday child is blindfolded and hits the piñata until it cracks open. All the children share the goodies and sing Las Mananitas. When a daughter is 15, the birthday is celebrated with a special mass in her honor. A party is given to introduce her to everyone as a young woman, where her father dances a waltz with her.
Nepal – A mixture of rice yogurt and color is placed on the birthday child’s forehead for good luck.
Netherlands – One a person reaches 50, they are served either a Sarah cake or an Abraham cake (depending on their sex). The cake represents one of these characters from the Bible that lived to a ripe old age.
New Zealand – After the birthday cake is lit, the happy birthday song is sung and the birthday person receives a clap for each year they have been alive and plus one for luck.
Norway – Norwegian children dance in front of their class with a friend while the rest of the students sing a birthday song. Norway‘s national flag is displayed outside the home of a birthday person. On the birthdays of important people, the streets in Norway are decorated with flags.
Panama – The piñata is the most important item. They usually resemble a character corresponding to a theme. It is filled with candy and confetti and is either hit with a stick or ribbons on it are pulled. When the cake is served, the birthday song is often performed in two languages – Spanish and English. The cake is served with ice cream. The extended family is invited.
Peru – Birthday party guests receive two favors called “recordatorio”. This means souvenir. While the first favor is a goody box or a bag, the second is a pin honoring the event. At these parties, children almost always receive fancy paper hats.
Philippines – Birthday cakes are baked in various sizes and shapes. The celebration includes noodles for long life, balloons and piñatas. Earlier in the day the family goes to hear Mass and to thank God.
Puerto Rico – The child gets tapped on the arm for each birth year. A big party, including a formal dinner is held.
Russia – Instead of a cake, many Russian child receive a birthday pie with a birthday greeting carved into the crust. Children are given gifts by their teachers. Children usually play a game featuring a clothesline. Each guest cuts down a prize to take home. Scotland – A pound note is given for every year old the child is plus an additional pound for good luck. A soft smack on the bottom is added for good measure, one for each year. An important sign of coming of age in Scotland is receiving a key to the house. South Africa – On the twenty-first birthday a key made of anything from paper to aluminum foil to gold is presented by the parents as a sign that the child is ready to unlock the door to their future.
Sweden – Like the Danish and Norwegians, the Swedes use their national flag for decoration. The Swedish children are served their breakfast in bed on their birthdays. The birthday cakes are similar to pound cake and decorated with marzipan.
United States – A cake is consumed that is topped with the number of candles matching the age of the birthday person. Everyone sings “Happy Birthday”, and at the end of the song, the birthday person blows out the candles. If they blow them all out with one blow, their birthday wishes should come true. Although, with the addition of trick candles it’s easy to be stymied.
Uruguay – The principal ritual of a birthday is the cake with candles and lights out, singing “Happy Birthday to you…” At the end of the song, the birthday person blows out the candles and all guests cheer, make jokes, whistle loudly, and touch the birthday person’s shoulder or head. When a girl reaches the age of 15, she puts on a formal dress and waltzes with potential suitors.
Vietnam – Everyone’s birthday is celebrated on new year’s day. Not only is Tet the beginning of a New Year, it is also everyone’s birthday. The Vietnamese do not know or acknowledge the exact day they were born. A baby turns one on Tet no matter when he/she was born that year. Children say they were born in the year of the symbol of the lunar calendar for that year. On the first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain “Lucky Money,” or li xi. These envelopes are given to the children by parents, siblings, relatives and close friends. While many of these celebrations cater to children, I found it interesting that a number of celebrations focused on adults.