Cross-cultural happiness on your Birthday

Gregre anniv BLOGI can’t sleep, I am sooo excited, tomorrow is my friend’s birthday” giggled my daughter last Friday evening. Since she got her invitation in her pigeonhole at her preschool she has been counting the days, the hours, to go to this young man’s forth birthday. “He told me that there will be a bouncy castle, and cake, and crisps and juice and sweets… hey, maman, when can I go?” pleaded my daughter the next morning three hours before leaving the house, already dressed in her festive clothes and jumping around like a jack-in-the-box. I love watching this excitement and, how lovely it is to observe this pure childhood happiness about birthdays. We are in May and she is also already preparing for her birthday in September…
Is the birthday celebration also touched by culture and different expectations? I am afraid so, yes! Talking with parents about their style of upbringing between cultures makes me realise how variable the meaning of this day can be. The French, for example, don’t mind if you congratulate them two days later or even one week before your actual birthday. This behaviour is unthinkable in Germany. There you don’t congratulate in advance as it brings misfortune. Don’t laugh! Some Germans are incredible picky about that and would be offended, even if you were well intentioned. Eva shares an anecdote with me which shows what she expects from a birthday. She is happily married to her British husband, Joshua. They are parents to seven-year-old twins. Eva recalls with humour Joshua’s first faux pas when it came to her birthday: He mentioned my birthday only after lunch; gave me some presents and didn’t bake so much as a cupcake! I was very annoyed and told him bluntly: a birthday starts in the morning, and I want a cake! It didn’t have to be a big one or a special one, a simple marble cake will do it, but don’t wait until Tea time. A birthday is a really special day for me, where everything is arranged to please the person who is celebrating the entire day. It’s interesting to see how fundamental it was for her to state her expectations to her husband, and at the same time, to confirm what she wants to do for their children.
Another story sticks in my memory. Johanna lived with her daughters for several years in Brazil and went back to Germany, her country of origin, after her divorce. Her children were six and seven years old and were soon invited to their first birthday parties – a cultural shock, as their mum explains: First of all the atmosphere was considerably less festive than in Brazil. You know, very conservative, only as many children as the child’s age. Then everyone was dressed like at school in the morning… my kids were expecting, as they were used to in Brazil, a massive party, where the kids are entertained and there is also a party for the parents, usually in a big restaurant. For this event they would wear lovely and colourful dresses. And when it came to the birthday cake, it was just an enormous let down! Used to giant cakes with three or more tiers, they discovered only a typical marble cake, which they simply found ridiculous… and if we were unlucky, and invited by a green-pro-organic family, they would have some nuts and dry fruits as nibbles, no crisps at all! This amusing story shows how culturally dependant birthdays are. And how much children get used to rituals and customs to celebrate a birthday “properly”.
Gregre rire et pleursSofia is from Armenia and her husband Gregor from Germany. They told me how surprised Sofia’s family was as they didn’t book a whole restaurant to have a big birthday party for their daughter’s second birthday. This is quite normal in Armenia. Even if the children are young you prepare huge parties for all the family and friends. It’s a bit similar here in Britain, where lots of parents book a church hall to celebrate their toddler’s birthday and sometimes they don’t enjoy it at all, because it’s too much for them. Between you and me, I agree with her, and as parents we are probably as conservative as Johanna observed in Germany, but I like quite small parties, where I can interact with a small group of children and have fun together.
Nevertheless, our little lady came out of the party with a big smile; she loved it and talked about it the whole weekend. The first thing she showed me proudly was her “goodybag” with lots of sweets, but also a little notebook and a rubber. And that brought back how much I loved bringing these little treasures home and thinking again and again about this wonderfully fun time, without the parents and immersed in chocolates, sweets and Coca Cola… thirty years ago (some things never change)!

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