Birthdays are hard work in Germany. Hard work? How can a birthday possibly be hard work? Given it has been a few years since I celebrated a birthday in the States, but I remember friends baking cakes, parents treating me to dinner and surprise parties organized by both. My job was simply to enjoy having a birthday and the many ways my family and friends showed me they cared.
What a surprise when I came to Germany and was asked, “So what are you going to do for your birthday?” Uh, what am I going to do? Obviously there must be some cultural interference confusing our communication because isn’t that the point of birthdays – to be celebrated by others? I am certainly not planning on doing anything for my birthday. I will simply look forward to how my new German friends celebrate me.
Unfortunately I have no recollections of that first German birthday, nor did I ever journal about any birthday experiences. (I just spent an hour reading through old journals, looking, of course, for birthday memories, but being captured by a younger Dora’s experiences.) Just once did I mention a birthday in planning about ten days before the actual event. Not surprisingly the whole thing was stressing me out.
Monday was a birthday kind of day. Three individuals from three very different generations all celebrated another year of life on that day. Unfortunately for me the youngest of the three lives furthest away, so that I couldn’t help celebrate one of my dearest friends and longest-lasting friendships. She is one of those mothers I referred to two weeks ago who works full-time and has an absolutely lovely family. I admire her (and her husband too, of course!) for this and many other reasons. Happy birthday, sweet friend!
Monday morning I attended a 90th birthday party. In very typical German fashion, it happened in a sort of “open-house” style. An informal invitation is given out: Ich habe morgen ein paar Leute eingeladen, so ab 10:00 Uhr. Wenn du Zeit und Lust hast, kannst du vorbei schauen, meaning something like, “Hey, I’m having some people over and if you want to stop by, that’d be cool, but if not, no big deal.” What’s important here is the tiny word ab. This is the starting signal for the party, but latecomers are very welcome. It’s a coming and going for several hours or all day long. Cultural expectations demand the guests arrive with some gift or token of appreciation. Often a bottle of wine or sparkling wine, flowers or small book of worthy quotes is appropriate. And in return the guests expect food and something to drink.
This party began ab 10 o’clock, which meant I arrived a little after the hour. I was greeted by the birthday host, who seemed surprised but pleased to see me. Surprised because he had not told me specifically about his get-together, but my coming was still appropriate. I assume most people who would like to celebrate the Geburtstagskind (birthday kid) are welcome to come. Per German custom I heartily shook the host’s hand, congratulated him on his birthday and wished him a good year of new life, health and many blessings. Germans, especially older ones, take these good wishes very seriously, especially the ones about good health.
He invited me into his living room where several neighbor men had already gathered around the prepared table. I was shown a seat, and asked if I preferred red or white wine to drink. Germans are not shy about drinking alcohol at any time of the day, especially on such a special occasion as a 90th birthday, although everyone was very conscious about how much: one glass, maybe two, but most likely no more. I chose white and as I waited to be served, I admired the spread: a platter with deviled eggs and meatballs; another with grapes and cheese pieces skewered on toothpicks; baskets of pretzels and rice cakes. We waited to drink until our host joined us, at which point we raised our glasses, again wished our host all the best, clinked our glasses and drank.
As I chatted with the neighbors and enjoyed the delicious food (as I found out provided by one of the neighbors, which is another appropriate gift idea – to help provide food – but also just very kind), I waited for our host to join us. But he just didn’t have any time. The phone rang, and he would leave to answer and hear more birthday wishes from an old friend. He returned just ready to sit and the door bell rang. As quickly as a 90-year-old man can, he made sure we all had enough to drink, then went to welcome his next guests. This went on and on. Finally maybe twenty minutes after I arrived, he managed to sit down and join us at the table.
“Geburtstage sind ganz schön anstrengend, oder?” (Birthdays are quite exhausting, strenuous, stressful – anstrengend is another fantastic German word – isn’t it?), I asked our host.
He nodded, “Especially without a wife.” This might sound horrible to our modern ears, but I immediately understood his meaning. First off he was still missing his loved wife who passed away five years ago. Secondly, like I’ve said, birthdays are hard work! I can’t imagine inviting guests and serving them all without my husband’s help. Having those two extra hands makes such a difference and often provides an opportunity for the birthday kid to actually enjoy his guests, at least a little.
The second type of German birthday invitation is more formal. Only certain individuals are invited – and if you are not invited, you are not welcome to come! – and for a specific time. This is indicated by the word um, a preposition meaning “at”. My mother-in-law also celebrated her birthday on Monday, and although this year was different, usually we are invited for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake – VERY German!) um 15.30 Uhr. This means we are to arrive at exactly 3:30 in the afternoon, more than five minutes late is poorly looked upon. Upon arrival we congratulate my mother-in-law on her birthday and give warm wishes.
After the congratulations are over, we are invited to the table which is covered in beautifully decorated cakes. Depending on the number of guests, there are at least two, but usually three or more cakes to choose from. My mother-in-law loves to bake and shows her love through the variety and work she puts into her cakes. She plans at least a week in advance which cake can be frozen but still remain tasty and how much time she’ll need to bake the five-tiered cake. Because my husband and our children are absolute cake-lovers, birthdays at my in-laws are feasts. I’m happy with a cup of strong coffee, which is never absent from a German party anyway, to go along with my one piece of cake.
By Monday evening I was tired and headachy, probably from the morning wine, and full from all the good food at my mother-in-law’s. The day was exhausting and all I had to do was sit around and eat and drink. Luckily, I thought to myself, I have a few months to enjoy before my own birthday preparations begin stressing me out.