Fantastic Birthday Traditions Around the World
Feliz Aniversário! Tillykke med fødselsdagen! Bon Anniversaire! Happy Birthday!
Every year, all 7.5 billion people living on planet earth have a birthday — but they don't all celebrate it in the same way.
In the West, cakes, candies and balloons are typical party trappings. In China, some birthdays are skipped because they're considered bad-luck years. In parts of Canada, the birthday reveler gets butter smeared on their face. And in North Korea, if your birthday falls on December 17 or July 8, you are under no circumstances permitted to celebrate.
Whether you're looking to take your birthday party on the road or just curious about birthdays in general — who celebrates, who doesn't, who eats seaweed or gets doused in flour — this guide reveals all you've ever wanted to know about birthday traditions around the world.
One of Denmark's most treasured birthday traditions dates back to the 16th century, when traveling salesmen, or pebersvends, roamed the country selling spices. Their demanding schedules often made it difficult to settle down and start a family. As a result, so long as there were spices to sling, these men remained bachelors.
Today, in honor of these spicemen, if a man or a woman is single on their 25th birthday, they are tied to a chair or a pole and doused with cinnamon. And if the lucky man or woman is still alone on their 30th birthday, the cinnamon is swapped out for pepper mixed with eggs.
Danish kids have their own customs; boys celebrate their big day with a kagemand (or cakeman) and girls with a kagekone (or cakegirl). These sweet cakes, shaped like little humans, are decorated with marzipan, gummy candies and mini Danish flags. To begin the celebration, the lucky kid cuts the head off their cake, while their friends and family scream and cheer them on.
It's customary in Indonesia for friends and family to surprise the birthday celebrant with a series of pranks planned throughout the day. Typically these include being tossed into a pool, having cake smashed in your face, or being doused head to toe in water, flour and eggs.
While these jokes are meant to be done in jest, there have been instances where the pranks have bordered on torture.
In May 2018, a video of a visibly shaken 3-year-old Indonesian boy went viral across the Internet. In the video, adults violently smashed eggs on the boy’s head and smothered his face in pans of egg yolk while he tried to cut his cake.
The Internet erupted in condemnation, and unfortunately, this traditionally lighthearted practice meant to commemorate birthdays and inspire good luck earned an undeserved bad reputation.
The recipe for Fairy Bread, Australia's traditional birthday treat for children, is simple: Plain white bread is slathered with a thick layer of yellow butter and covered with multi-colored candy sprinkles (or “hundreds and thousands” as they are called in Australia).
Yet this simple treat is taken seriously by Aussies, who are quite protective of their tradition. When American food editor Katherine Sacks of “Epicurious” mistakenly called the bread Fairy Toast, Australians across Twitter went berserk because the bread is never toasted. And likewise, when Sacks suggested the treat "is usually eaten as breakfast, as a snack in-between meals, or after dinner to finish off the meal," the Aussie purists roared again.
Fairy Bread is strictly reserved for birthdays; if eaten at any other time of the year, it's just not Fairy Bread.
Like Australians, Atlantic Canadians — people living on the East Coast of Canada — also commemorate birthdays with butter. But instead of slathering it on plain white bread, they spread the butter on the birthday kid's nose (because, why not?).
The tradition is aptly called “nose greasing,” and despite the potential mess, it's meant to bring the honoree good luck. According to legend, a greasy nose makes it difficult for bad luck to stick to the birthday boy or gal in the year ahead.
Typically, a nose greasing is meant to take the person by surprise, which means it can happen anywhere and at any time. Parents will often sneak into their child's bedroom in the morning with a handful of butter. Or, to bump up the entertainment value, older kids will ambush their birthday target by pinning that person to the ground and smashing their nose with a fat, creamy blob of buttery goodness.
The mundun, or head-shaving ritual, is a Hindu ceremony performed on or before a child's first or third birthday. According to Hindu religion, shaving the hair removes any negativity carried over from a past life, cleanses a child's inner being while protecting them from all evil, and improves hair growth.
While every family can modify the ritual, traditionally the head shaving is performed by a priest or the child's father. Once the hair is removed, the head is washed in holy water, and a mixture of turmeric and sandalwood is rubbed on the child's head to heal any cuts.
At the parent's discretion, the shaved hair can be discarded, sprinkled in a holy river or offered to the divine.
The United States
Inspired by social media and the baby cake smashing trend, women in the United States are donning tiaras and tutus, popping bottles of champagne and hiring professional photographers to snap their pic as they dunk their face in a plate of birthday cake.
It's called the adult cake smash session, and it's become incredibly popular with women turning 30. While some see the trend as an excuse to eat cake while dressed as a Disney princess, other women look at it as a chance to buck society’s expectations, ease playfully into a new decade of life, and have one last childish hurrah before the responsibilities of adulthood officially begin.
Ireland & the UK
The birthday bumps is a classic celebratory tradition found in Ireland and the United Kingdom. On a child's birthday, several sturdy adults hold the lad or lass upside down by their ankles and gently bump the top of their head on the ground for each year of life lived, plus one extra bump for good luck. In schoolyards, children perform a variation wherein a group of friends hold the birthday boy or girl by the wrists and ankles and move their entire body up and down in the air.
In places like Israel, Latvia and Lithuania, another interpretation of the birthday bumps exists. Instead of being held upside down or tossed in the air, the child sits on a chair while being lifted up and down by adults. The number of lifts corresponds to the child's age, plus one bonus lift for good luck in the year ahead.
Not a kid? Don't fret: While the tradition typically involves little ones, adults have been known to enjoy it as well.
Similar to the birthday bumps in Ireland, ear pulling is Hungary's beloved birthday tradition. Once a year, a doting mother, an older brother prone to teasing, or an enthusiastic aunt lovingly pulls on one of the lucky birthday kid's earlobes for each year they've been alive. As the pulling takes place, a simple Hungarian birthday rhyme is recited, which roughly translates to mean "God bless you and live so long your ears reach your ankles."
While ear pulling is popular in Hungary, it isn't the only country that embraces the custom. Around 6,000 miles away in South America, Brazilians and Argentinians never forfeit the chance to give or receive a few friendly birthday ear pulls.
Birthdays in China are a unique blend of both tradition and taboo.
On the day a child is born, he or she begins life as a 1-year-old (time in utero is considered the first year of life). As such, their first official birthday bash actually occurs on their second birthday. On that day, the child is placed in front of an array of objects, and whatever they pick up first is believed to reveal an aspect of their personality or a future interest. If the birthday girl or boy selects a toy plane, for example, that could indicate a future filled with travel. Or if a mirror is selected, the child may be considered vain.
The traditions don't stop there. When people make it to the impressive ages of 60 or 80, an over-the-top celebration complete with a never-ending buffet is in order. These birthday years are considered so significant that some people will wait until they turn 60 to celebrate their first birthday!
Interestingly, because they're considered bad luck years, it's taboo for women to celebrate turning 30, 33 or 66 years old. To cast aside lousy luck at 30, women remain 29 years old for an extra year. At 33, evil spirits are kicked to the curb by pounding on a piece of meat 33 times before throwing it away. And at 66, the birthday girl recruits a daughter or a close female friend to chop up a piece of meat for her no more or less than 66 times.
Regardless of the year, the Chinese always commemorate birthdays with a big bowl of longevity noodles, meant to symbolize a long and healthy life.
In Vietnam, you're never in danger of forgetting someone's birthday, because the Vietnamese collectively celebrate their birthdays on New Years Day, or Tet.
During Tet, old debts and grievances are forgiven, presenting the perfect opportunity to kick off a new year of life with a clean slate. For birthday presents, children are given bright red envelopes filled with "lucky money." The money is given in even denominations since odd numbers, in Vietnamese culture, are considered bad luck. Older family members are also given cash on this day as a token of continued good health and success in the year ahead.
Given that the Vietnamese do not acknowledge birthdates or days, all babies turn 1 year old on the day of Tet, regardless of when they were born that year.
Birthday celebrations, whether religious or personal, are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. (The country also forbids practicing witchcraft, making wine and dabbing, a popular hip-hop dance.)
Over the years, a powerful group of people — including advisers to the royal court, Muslim scholars and members of the religious sect of Wahhabi, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — have agreed, for myriad reasons, that birthday celebrations have no place in their country, which is home to some of the holiest sites in Islam.
But the reasons for the Saudi birthday ban aren't purely sacred. Abdullah al-Mutlaq, religious leader and adviser to the royal court, once said he supported the ban because birthday celebrations, if permissible, would rob families of their wealth. Other prominent leaders view birthday parties as liberal and Western, and fear they would negatively influence the conservative Saudi identity.
Regardless, there are still families in Saudi Arabia that continue to celebrate, despite the risk of being arrested and detained by the morality police if they’re caught engaging in inappropriate birthday activities.
Miyeok-guk, or seaweed soup, is a Korean birthday meal that originated with the Koryo kingdom that ruled the Korean peninsula from 935 to 1392 CE. Packed with vitamins and minerals and believed to purify the blood, pregnant women ate the soup to produce nutrient-rich breast milk.
To extend health to their offspring, mothers began making seaweed soup for their children every year on their birthday. Today a bowl of seaweed soup on your birthday serves multiple purposes; not only is it a token of celebration, but it's also recognized as a symbol of gratitude for one's life journey, continued health and overall well-being.
It's difficult to gauge how the average person in notoriously secretive North Korea celebrates their birthday. However, considering current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un banned all gatherings that include alcohol and singing in 2017, it's safe to assume that birthdays, if celebrated at all, are celebrated with caution.
But while citizens must keep things low-key, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, have their own birthdays marked as national holidays. On these days — Day of the Sun and Day of the Shining Star, respectively — North Koreans must visit locations connected to the lives of the former leaders, including statues erected in their honor. (Interestingly, though, there is no national holiday to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-un himself.)
Moreover, on December 24, Christians are banned from celebrating Christmas Eve, and must instead celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-un's dead grandmother, Kim Jong-suk. And no North Korean is permitted to celebrate their birthday on December 17, the date of Kim Jong-il's death, or July 8, the anniversary of Kim II-sung's death.
While in Denmark it's customary to make a spicy mess on a single friend's birthday, in parts of Germany, if you're turning 30 and you're unwed, get prepared to clean.
This old tradition is part birthday celebration, part match-making event, with single men and women turning 30 paraded around town dressed in drag and forced to complete a variety of chores such as sweeping dirty stairs and cleaning doorknobs with toothbrushes. The cleaning gives the birthday boy or girl the opportunity to announce their single status publicly while showing off their housekeeping skills to other eligible singletons passing by.
Interestingly, participants may choose to swap out a task with a kiss from a total stranger, preferably a virgin.
Made with mashed yams, boiled eggs and palm oil, oto is a traditional birthday breakfast served in the West African country of Ghana. Eggs in Ghana are not only regarded as an excellent source of protein, they're also considered a sacred symbol of fertility and are believed to possess natural cleansing powers.
Traditionally, oto is a communal dish, designed to be made and shared on the morning of a friend or family member's birthday. After washing their hands, everyone gathers around the bowl and scoops up a clump of the mash with their right hand before eating it directly from their palm.
If you're lucky enough to take part in this birthday breakfast ritual, be sure you don't use your left hand. In Ghana, the left hand is considered dirty and should never be used when eating food.