What will you wish for as you blow out the candles on your next birthday cake?
How about German fluency?
One important step to get there is learning German customs and phrases that every native speaker knows—like how to wish someone “happy birthday” in German.
There are a number of common phrases you can use depending on whom you’re talking to, which I’ll show you in this article. I’ll also explain how to sing the “Happy Birthday song” in German and cover important words for birthday celebrations.
Before we get there, however, let’s explore a bit of interesting German birthday history and the local customs you should know before using these phrases.
Happy Birthday History: How Germans Started the Party
Did you know that we can thank the Germans for developing modern birthday celebrations? Although history shows evidence of the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations celebrating the birthdays of their gods with fanciful festivities, it was the Germans who brought the practice down to us mere mortals.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, when bakers found that there was money to be made in the marketing of Geburtstagstorten (birthday cakes) for children’s birthdays, the rise of the Kinderfest (child celebration) began. This practice was mostly reserved for the wealthy, but with the ushering in of the Industrial Revolution, the masses soon gained access to these wonderful treats and thus eating cake in celebration of one’s special day became the norm.
How to Celebrate Birthdays, German Style
I think it’s fair to say that globally, Germans have quite the reputation for being “the life of the party,” and birthday celebrations are indeed no exception. Now, while birthdays can inspire quite the festivities, there are a handful of customs that are highly ingrained in the way Germans approach this annual occasion, steeped in tradition with a smattering of superstition thrown in.
Avoid cultural faux pas by taking note of what it looks like to celebrate one’s birthday, German style:
- Superstition prevails—refrain from early birthday wishes. Crossing paths with a black cat, opening an umbrella indoors, breaking a mirror… we know them well, those classic fears that come soaked in bad luck should we fall victim. You probably wouldn’t add wishing someone “Happy Birthday” before their actual birthday to the list, but the Germans sure do.
From my American perspective, I’ve been known to give a pre-birthday wish to friends and colleagues who I suspect I might not see on their actual birthday. This is considered a big no-no in Germany. Best to keep those pre-birthday wishes to yourself, lest you be deemed the one to blame should hard luck befall the Geburtstagskind (birthday child) in the coming year.
- But feel free to start partying the night before! So, you shouldn’t wish someone “happy birthday” before the actual day of their birth—but no one said you can’t get the party started early. Germans have a little tradition called Reinfeiern (to party into) which permits you to celebrate your birthday the night before and party into its official start.
This is serious business, as the Geburtstagskind and all of his/her guests diligently watch the clock until midnight strikes, at which time they’re allowed to inundate him/her with all sorts of warm wishes for love, happiness and good luck for the coming year.
- Pick up your own birthday tab. Many of us are accustomed to being treated as a guest on our birthday, meaning that friends or family will often cover the costs for birthday celebrations, like the bar tab or restaurant bill. Take note that this isn’t the case in Germany.
To avoid any potential awkward situations, be sure to bring along cash to cover the entire affair as your friends and family will expect you to pick up the bill. Birthdays in Germany are your treat!
- And bring your own birthday cake to work! An office birthday celebration can be quite the affair in Germany. Be prepared for those colleagues you know well (and even those you don’t) to go out of their way to wish you well on your special day. Special note on this one: be sure to show up with your birthday cake in hand—it’s expected and guaranteed to be consumed.
To get a deeper sense of the German culture around birthdays, check out this video explaining how to craft the perfect invitation to a kid’s birthday party. You’ll see how seriously this celebration is taken!
And if you don’t understand every word, no worries—this video is available on FluentU, where you can simply hover over any German phrases or words in the interactive subtitles to get instant definitions.
Sign up for a FluentU trial and you’ll get hundreds of real German videos that come with interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists, flashcards and fun quizzes so you’ll actually learn while you watch.
Plus, since you’re getting media that’s made for native speakers, by native speakers, you can be sure that you’re learning the authentic language as it’s used in real life.
How to Say Happy Birthday in German (And Party Like the Locals Do!)
Now comes the moment of truth—how exactly do you wish someone a happy birthday in German? Well, the Germans have a host of birthday wishes and sayings and if you hang on tight, I’m going to share with you some of the more classic “happy birthday” expressions and their nuances.
The “Happy Birthday Song” in German
I think it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: no birthday would be complete without singing the official “Happy Birthday song.”
The Germans, interestingly enough, often defer to the English version of the song. However, if you want to take part in the truly traditional German birthday experience, it’s a must to learn how to sing it in the local language:
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück! (Happy birthday to you!)
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück! (Happy birthday to you!)
Zum Geburtstag liebe _____ (Happy birthday dear _____)
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück! (Happy birthday to you!)
Phrases to Wish Anyone a Happy Birthday in German
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag! (All the best on your birthday!)
This is probably hands-down the most standard of birthday wishes.
You can’t go wrong using this one across the board when wishing friends, family, neighbors and colleagues a happy day.
Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag! (Heartfelt congratulations on your birthday!)
This birthday wish is a bit warmer in nature but still a good standard for any and all birthday recipients.
Viel Glück zum Geburtstag! (Best of luck on your birthday!)
This is an easy, breezy birthday wish that can also be spread far and wide to anyone.
Alles Liebe zum Geburtstag. (Much love on your birthday.)
This birthday wish is a bit more personal. I suspect the word “love” probably clued you into that.
Reserve this one for mom, dad, partners, spouses and close friends.
Von Herzen alles Gute zum Geburtstag. (From the heart, all the best on your birthday.)
Anytime the heart is involved, you can believe this wish comes from someplace personal. So, again, reserve these birthday wishes for someone you like a lot.
Ich wünsche Ihnen ein gesundes und erfolgreiches neues Lebensjahr! (I wish you [formal] a healthy and prosperous new year of life!)
This official birthday wish is something you’re likely to find on a birthday card—like the one you and your colleagues decided would be good to sign and give to your boss.
Es lebe das Geburtstagskind! (Long live the birthday child!)
This phrase is typically reserved for the young and something you’re likely to hear from Oma (Grandma) and Opa (Grandpa) when celebrating your day.
Viel Gesundheit, Glück und Zufriedenheit dem Geburtstagskind. (Much health, happiness and contentment for the birthday child.)
This phrase is also often used among family members.
However, it can come in handy for good friends who sense you might be having a rough time with aging another year… and are looking to bring in some added good cheer.
Nachträglich alles Gute zum Geburtstag. (Happy belated birthday.)
Even the most thoughtful of us can miss out on wishing someone a happy birthday. German rules nevertheless do allow you to send good wishes post-birthday and thankfully, no bad omens are attached to this one.
Cologne: Alles Juute zum Jeburtstaach! (All the best on your birthday!)
Oh, and by the way, there also happen to be regional, specific ways to wish someone a happy birthday in Germany. I live in Köln (Cologne), therefore I’m delighted to share with you how the diehard Kölners like to say “happy birthday.’
It’s spoken in the regional dialect known as Kölsch (which, by the way, also happens to be the name of the local beer).
Important Words for Your German Birthday Celebrations
We’ve covered a bit of ground here when it comes to wishing someone a happy birthday in German. But that’s not all you need to know for the celebrations! Here are some important German nouns and verbs for a great birthday party.
Der Kuchen/die Torte (The cake)
No birthday is complete without a birthday cake! And as we noted above, we can thank the Germans for introducing the modern equivalent of this delectable treat to birthday celebrations.
Das Eis (The ice cream)
Nothing goes better with birthday cake than this cold, creamy concoction. Whether your tastes veer towards das Vanilleeis (vanilla ice cream), das Erdbeereis (strawberry ice cream) or das Schokoladeneis (chocolate ice cream), if it’s your birthday, the choice is clearly yours.
Die Kerzen (The candles)
It’s unclear whether the Greeks or Germans originated the custom of putting birthday candles on a cake. However, those who believe it was the Germans say that this practice was done to represent “the light of life.”
Die Luftballons (the balloons)
If you grew up in the ’80s, you might already be familiar with this word thanks to German singer Nena’s sensational hit song, “99 Luftballons.”
Die Einladung (The invitation)
If you’re going to have a party, it’s best to ensure these get sent to all of your Gäste (guests).
Das Geschenk (The gift)
Who doesn’t love to receive a gift in recognition of their birthday?
The Germans tend to strike a more personal note when it comes to gift-giving, opting out of a standard bottle of wine (unless, of course, you happen to be a true connoisseur!) and aiming for something more individualized in nature.
Schenken (To gift)
You just learned the word “gift,” now comes the verb associated with the actual act of gifting.
Aufmachen (To open)
Now you know the word for what you’re doing when you actually open your gifts. Take note that this word is one of those tricky trennbare (separable) verbs, so make sure you break it in half. For example:
Ich mache das Geschenk auf. (I open the present.)
Die Karte (The card)
It’s common practice to attach a card along with your gift.
With all of the birthday sayings you just learned above, you no longer have to sweat what to write inside!
Die Party/Die Feier (The party)
We already noted that Germans love a good party and a birthday is one of the best times to go all-out and party like there’s no tomorrow.
But there is a tomorrow, because German birthday celebrations are all about the kick-off to a great year ahead.
Be prepared for many a “Prost!” in honor of your birthday. But here’s a little insider’s tip for German toasts: be sure to stare directly into the eyes of the person when giving or receiving such a cheer, otherwise it’s considered lousy luck.
Dekorieren (To decorate)
What’s a birthday party without decorations? Likely a not-so-festive one, but no worries. The Germans appreciate the allure of a well decorated birthday event.
Feiern oder zelebrieren (To party or to celebrate)
This is the really easy part of any birthday event!
So now you have all the ins and outs on not only how to wish someone a happy birthday in German but also all the other essential details associated with celebrating the day. Commit it all to memory and then the only thing you have left to do is have one heckuva time!
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