Birthday traditions vary widely throughout the world; some are quite simple while others are all-out celebrations, which include everything from ear pulling to elaborate parties. Let me just say, I’m glad I don’t live in Hungary where when gifts are opened, everyone pulls on the ear lobes of the birthday person and says a little rhyme, which is translated into English as follows: “God bless you, live so long so your ears reach your ankles”. (This isn’t the only earlobe country, as you will read below.)
All things considered, I believe the desire in the human heart to celebrate one’s birth is about more than being the center of attention for a single day each year (though, this is a nice side benefit). I think the underlying question we all want answered is: Do I matter? Not that we want to matter because someone depends on us, but instead, because we have influenced someone’s life in such a meaningful way, big or small, that they cannot help but celebrate.
Of course, we shouldn’t wait for only one day each year to express our love and appreciation to those we care about, that is something we want to practice as often as possible. However, if you were wondering what to do for the next birthday and are out of ideas, you might consider an international flair like those listed below. Personally, I would stay away from Jamaica or Canada, as being floured or greased just doesn’t seem very special to me. Overall, it really isn’t so much about the festivities, as it is the people—those we celebrate and those with whom we celebrate.
Here’s some fun and interesting birthday celebration facts:
Africa – Initiation Ceremonies. In various African nations they hold initiation ceremonies for groups of children instead of birthdays. When children reach a certain designated age, they learn the laws, beliefs, customs, songs and dances of their tribes.
Argentina – Dance the waltz at 15. When girls turn 15 they have a huge party and dance the waltz with their father and other boys.
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.
Bolivia – Dance the waltz and wear white. At the age of 16 the birthday girl wears a white dress and dances the waltz with her father and other boys.
Brazil – Pulls on the earlobe. 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 most special friend or relative, usually mom or dad. At the age of 15, the girl dances a waltz with staring with her father and grandfather. She dances with a total of 15 partners each symbolizing a year of her life.
Canada – Greasing the nose with butter or margarine. In Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland) the birthday child is ambushed and their nose is 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. Birthday punches. In Quebec the birthday person receives a punch for each year they are alive and then one for good luck.
China – Noodles for Lunch. The birthday child pays respect to his/her parents and receives a gift of money. Friends and relatives are invited to lunch and noodles are served to wish the birthday child a long life.
Cuba – Food, music, piñatas and lots of people. The celebrations are very similar to the United States; food, decorations, gifts, piñatas, cake, candles, “happy birthday” song and games. But a lot of people are invited including neighbors, friends, co-workers and family even if they don’t have kids around the birthday child’s age.
Denmark – Flying Flags. 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.
Ecuador – Pink Dress. When a girl turns 15 there is a great celebration and the girl wears a pink dress. The father puts on the birthday girls first pair of high heels and dances the waltz with her while 14 maids and 14 boys also dance the waltz. (I guess birthday boys are just out of luck.)
England – Fortune Telling Cakes and Bumps. 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. 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 – Candles left burning for the day. A member of the birthday person’s family wakes up at sunrise and lights the candles on the birthday cake. There are as many candles as the years of age of the birthday person plus one for good luck. The candles are left burning all day long. After dinner that night then everyone sings the birthday song and the birthday person blows out the candles. If all of the candles are blown out in one try then the wish of the birthday person will come true. Presents are then opened and the party starts. Another for Germany – Sweeping the stairs of city hall. When men reach the age of 30 and they still don’t have a girlfriend that they have to sweep the stairs of the city hall. All their friends will throw rubble on the stairs and when you’re finished they’ll throw some more rubble there. This way every girl can see that this man reached the age of 30 and still doesn’t have a girlfriend (and that he can clean a house very well!).
Ghana – Special foods. The foods eaten are watche (brown rice and beans), sheto (black pepper), mecko (red pepper), red rice with corn beef and fufu (pounded yam and cassava).
Guyana – Special dishes. 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 – Crown Years. 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 or paper streamers, paper flowers and balloons. At school the birthday child can give their classmates something to eat and the teacher makes the child a birthday hat, often made of paper streamers or paper flowers.
Hungary – Pull on the ear lobes. When gifts are open, everyone pulls on the ear lobes of the birthday person and says a little rhyme. The rhyme is translated into English as follows “God bless you, live so long so your ears reach your ankles”.
India – Colored dress and chocolates. At school the birthday child wears a colored dress and passes out chocolates to the entire class, with the help of a trusted friend.
Ireland – Birthday Bumps. The birthday child is lifted upside down and “bumped” on the floor for good luck. The number of bumps given is the age of the child plus one for extra good luck.
Israel – Chair Raising. 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 – Pulling ears. The child’s ears are pulled as many times as how old they are turning.
Jamaica – Floured. There is singing and dancing to the beats of reggae music. The birthday child is floured.
Japan – New Clothes. The birthday child wears entirely new clothes to mark the occasion. Certain birthdays are more important than others and these are celebrated with a visit to the local shrine.
Korea – Choice to tell the future. There is big family party on the first birthday. The table is set with food, and four items; a pencil, a ruler, thread, and money. The baby chooses one item to forecast their future; excellent student, good with hands, long life or riches.
Latvia – Lifting the chair. 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 – Garlands and lifting the chair.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 – Piñatas. 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 is cracked open. All the children share the goodies. The song Las Mananitas is sung. Also, when a daughter is 15, the birthday is celebrated with a special mass in her honor. A party is then given to introduce her to everyone as a young woman. The father dances a waltz with her.
Nepal – Mark on the forehead. A certain mixture of rice yogurt and color is placed on the birthday child’s forehead for good luck.
New Zealand – Birthday claps. After the birthday cake is lit, the happy birthday song is sung loudly and often out of tune and then the person birthday person receives a clap for each year they have been alive and then one for good luck.
Norway – Birthday day. The birthday child stands out in front of their class and chooses a friend to share a little dance while the rest of the class sings a happy birthday song.
Panama – Piñatas and large parties. The piñata is the most important item. They are usually made to resemble a character to correspond with a theme. It is filled with candy and confetti and is either hit with a stick or there are ribbons on it to pull. When the cake is served, the happy birthday song is often performed in two languages, Spanish and English. The cake is served with ice cream. The extended family is invited and sometimes up to 100 children are invited.
Philippines – Mixture of East and West. Birthday cakes are baked in various sizes and shapes. The celebration includes noodles representing long life, balloon decorations and piñatas. Earlier in the day the family goes to hear Mass and to thank God.
Puerto Rico – Taps on the arm. The child gets tapped on the arm for each birth year. A big party which includes a formal dinner is held.
Russia – Birthday Pies. Instead of a birthday cake, many Russian child receive a birthday pie with a birthday greeting carved into the crust.
Scotland – A pound note and a soft smack. 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 also given for each year.
South Africa – Presentation of a key at age twenty-one. On the twenty-first birthday a key made of anything from paper to aluminum foil to silver to gold is presented by the parents as a sign that the child is ready to unlock the door to their future.
United States – Cake, candles and song. A cake is made, and candles are put on top based on how old the person is. Then everyone sings the “happy birthday” song, and at the end of the song, the birthday child blows out the candles. If they blow them all out with one blow, their birthday wishes will come true.
Uruguay – A waltz at age 15 for a girl. The principal ritual of a birthday is the cake with candles and lights out, with the eternal song “Happy Birthday to you…” At the end of the song, the birthday person blows out the candles and all guests applaud or cheer, some 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 dances a waltz with possible suitors.
Vietnam – Everyone’s birthday is celebrated on new years 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.