Although birthday traditions are quite similar in some countries today, not everyone celebrates in the same way.
There are numerous traditions surrounding birthdays, some of which are described below. You may recognize some of the customs, while others will be very unfamiliar. There may also be special birthday traditions in your family or a friend’s family that do not appear below.
Family history, culture, language and economic status are all details that affect the way a person observes the anniversary of their birth. Two of the most significant factors throughout history, however, have been geographic location and spiritual beliefs. The following customs have been divided according to these two categories.
Here is a list of different continents, countries and cultures and their own unique birthday traditions:
In many African cultures, the day a child is born is not observed as a special day. Instead, when African children reach a certain age, they are initiated into the community and this is when they learn the laws, beliefs, customs, songs and dances of their tribes. These initiation ceremonies are celebrated for groups of children instead of individual children.
Egyptian Birthday Traditions – Egyptian birthday parties are full of singing and dancing when a child fulfills a year in his/her life. Lots of flowers and fruit are used to decorate the party as symbols of life and growth.
Ghanan Birthday Traditions – On their birthday, children wake up to a special treat called “oto” which is a patty made from mashed sweet potato and eggs fried in palm oil. Later they have a birthday party where they usually eat stew and rice and a dish known as “kelewele”, which is fried plantain chunks (these are similar to bananas).
The Asante people in Ghana celebrate “krada” (which means “Soul Day”) on the day of their birth. On a person’s krada, he or she wakes up early and washes themselves using a special leaf soaked overnight in water (this is a cleansing ritual intended to purify the inner soul). Then in the afternoon, they have a feast with family and friends and the celebrant is usually dressed in white clothing.
Kenyan Birthday Traditions – When a baby is born, the mother takes the baby strapped to her back into the thorn enclosure where the cattle is kept, and there, her husband and the village elders wait to give the child his or her name.
Nigerian Birthday Traditions – In Nigeria the 1st, 5th, 10th and 15th birthdays are considered extremely special events. On these birthdays they have huge parties which have up to 100 guests or more. On their birthdays they have a feast consisting of an entire roasted cow or goat. They also serve a dish called “jollof rice” which is rice with tomatoes, red peppers, and onions plus cassava which is similar to sweet potato.
Sudananese Birthday Traditions – In Sudan the children who live in the cities celebrate their birthday whereas in the country they don’t. Children will usually drink a red punch that is called “karkady” (this is made from hibiscus flowers).
Chinese Birthday Traditions – When a Chinese child turns one year old, it is a very important event. The parents might tell the baby’s fortune by placing the baby in the center of a group of objects (such as coins, a doll, a book, etc.) and they wait to see which object the baby picks up. If the baby picked up a coin, he/she may be rich, if the baby reached for a book he/she may become a teacher, if the baby reached for the doll he/she may have many children, etc. The sixth birthday is also a special birthday for the Chinese. For the party itself, friends and relatives are invited for lunch and extra-long noodles are served to wish the birthday child a long life.
In China, it is considered unlucky to give someone a clock for a birthday present (in Mandarin, the word for “clock” is similar to death). On the other hand people believe that tigers protect children and so family members might bring newborns special gifts decorated with tigers.
Indian Birthday Traditions – On a Hindu child’s first birthday, his or her head is shaved while being held by a special fire. Removal of the hair cleanses the child of any evil in past lives, symbolizing a renewal of the soul.
Usually on the day of the birthday, the child will wear very colorful clothing to school and will pass out chocolates to the entire class. The child will also kneel and touch their parents’ feet as a sign of respect. They then all visit a shrine, where they pray and the child is blessed.
In the afternoon there might be a meal that includes a spicy vegetable stew called curry and chutney which is a spicy fruit relish. The dessert is a treat known as “dudh pakh”, which is rice like pudding (they might also stir in pistachios, almonds, raisins, and a spice called cardamon).
Japanese Birthday Traditions – Certain birthdays in Japan are more important than others (the 3rd, 5th, and 7th). During these special birthdays, Japanese children participate in the upcoming Shichi-go-san Festival (meaning the “Seven-Five-Three” Festival), celebrated annually on November 15. During this festival, children and their families visit a shrine or other place of worship and will give thanks to God for their health and strength, and ask to be blessed with continued well-being in the future and a long life (this is due to the fact that a long time ago children died before their 3rd, 5th or 7th birthdays). For this occasion, girls and boys always dress in their finest clothes, which may be traditional kimonos or also western-style clothing.
Korean Birthday Traditions – In Korea, on the 100th day (which is called a “paegil”) after a child’s birth, a small feast is usually held to celebrate the child having survived this period. The family, relatives, and friends celebrate with rice cakes, wine, and other delicacies such as red and black bean cakes sweetened with sugar or honey. It is believed that if the rice cakes are shared with 100 people the child will have a long life and therefore rice cakes are usually sent to as many people as possible to help share the happiness of the occasion. Those receiving the rice cakes do not return the serving vessels empty, but with skeins of thread expressing the hope of longevity, and with rice and money symbolizing future wealth. The red and black bean cakes are believed to bring the child luck and happiness and are placed at the four compass points within the house.
Malaysian Birthday Traditions – Friends or relatives who visit, give presents to the person celebrating their birthday or they may give an “ang-bao” which is a small red packet filled with money. At about 16, when teenagers start to invite boys and girls to their parties, there is lots of dancing and games to help find a partner (the trick is to always have the same numbers of boys and girls!).
Nepalese Birthday Traditions – A certain mixture of rice yogurt and color is placed on the birthday child’s forehead for good luck.
Philippine Birthday Traditions – On a birthday, early in the day, the family goes to hear Mass and to thank God. Also, in the Philippines, birthday cakes are baked in various sizes and shapes. The celebration also includes noodles representing a long life. The outside of the birthday child’s house is adorned with blinking colored lights in the early evening.
Vietnamese Birthday Traditions – Vietnamese do not know or acknowledge the exact day they were born, everyone’s birthday is celebrated on New Years day (“Tet” is the name for the first morning of New Years). A baby turns one on Tet no matter what day he or she was born on that year. On the first morning of Tet, parents, siblings, relatives and close friends congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain “Lucky Money,” or “li xi”.
Australia and New Zealand
Australian Birthday Traditions – Many Australian Birthday parties are barbeques as the weather most of the time is not very cold. In Australia the children eat a dish called “Fairy Bread” which is a very popular snack (it is buttered bread covered with tiny sprinkles known as “hundreds and thousands”).
New Zealandian Birthday Traditions – After the birthday cake is lit, the happy birthday song is sung loudly (often out of tune) and then the birthday person receives a clap for each year they have been alive and one for good luck.
Danish Birthday Traditions – In Denmark, presents are placed around the child’s bed while they are sleeping so that they will see them immediately when waking up. Also, a flag is flown outside a window to designate that someone living in that house is having a birthday.
British Birthday Traditions – It is an old English tradition to mix symbolic objects into the birthday cake as it is being prepared (in medieval times, objects such as coins and thimbles were mixed into the batter). People believed that the person who got the coin would be wealthy, while the unlucky finder of the thimble would never marry. Today, small figures, fake coins and small candies are more common. Guests are warned ahead of time as well, so that no one injures their teeth or swallows a tiny treasure.
Also, when it’s your birthday, your friends give you the “bumps” which is when 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! They usually will also drink “squash” which is an orange or lemon flavored Kool-Aid-type drink made from syrup (rather than a powder).
German Birthday Traditions – On a child’s birthday the dining table or kitchen will have a special wooden birthday wreath placed on it. The wreath contains small holes for candles and a holder in the center for the life-candle (this is a taller candle and is beautifully decorated). This candle is lit each year of a child’s birthday until they reach the age of twelve. Usually on the day of the child’s birthday, a member of the birthday person’s family wakes up at sunrise and lights the candles on the birthday cake to be lit all day long.
In Germany, when men reach the age of 30 and they still don’t have a girlfriend, they have to sweep the stairs of the city hall. All their friends will throw rubble on the stairs and even when you’re finished they’ll throw some more rubble. 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!).
Dutch Birthday Traditions – In Holland, special year birthdays such as 5, 10, 15, 20, and 21 are called “crown” years. The birthday child usually 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, paper streamers, paper flowers and balloons. Children will eat pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and taarties (tarts made with different kinds of fillings) which is served with lemonade or hot chocolate.
To receive a birthday present wrapped in black and white is considered bad luck.
Irish Birthday Traditions – A tradition in Ireland is to lift the birthday child upside down and have them be gently “bumped” on the floor for good luck. The number of bumps given is the age of the child plus one for extra good luck.
Lithuanian Birthday Traditions – In Lithuania 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).
Norwegian Birthday Traditions – In Norway the birthday child stands out in front of their class and chooses a friend to share a little dance with while the rest of the class sings a happy birthday song. Most birthday parties consist of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and dishes of red gelatin covered with vanilla sauce.
At birthday parties guests may go fishing, but not for fish; they play a game known as “Fishing for Ice Cream”, where everyone pulls up a frozen treat attached to a piece of string.
Russian Birthday Traditions – Instead of a birthday cake, many Russian children receive a birthday pie with a birthday greeting carved into the crust. In school, teachers often give a gift to the student having a birthday. Children usually will play a game that features a clothesline. What they do is hang prizes from the clothesline and each guest gets to cut down a prize to take home.
Scottish Birthday Traditions – 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.
Swedish Birthday Traditions – Like Danish and Norwegian people, Swedes like to use their national flag to decorate on birthdays and special occasions. Swedish children are often served breakfast in bed. Birthday cakes in Sweden are similar to pound cakes and are decorated with marzipan.
Israeli Birthday Traditions – In Israel the child whose birthday it is usually wears a crown made from leaves or flowers and sits in a chair decorated in streamers. Guests dance around the chair singing and may also raise and lower it a number of times, corresponding to the child’s age (plus one for good luck).
The thirteenth birthday for a boy is when he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, and the twelfth birthday for a girl is when she celebrates her Bat Mitzvah. Each child has to prepare for this service for many months or even years ahead of time. On this day they must now obey the Jewish laws as an adult and behave responsibly.
Muslim Communities‘ Birthday Traditions – In Muslim cultures, people thank God (Allah) following the birth of a child by giving gifts to the poor. After the child is a week old, its head is shaved and then the family donates an amount of silver equal too, and often more than, the weight of the child’s hair. Following this ritual, family and friends come together for a feast and a naming ceremony.
North America and Central America
Canadian Birthday Traditions – In Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island 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). Regarding the cake, a wrapped coin might be found between the layers of the birthday cake (whoever finds it is the first to get a turn at all the party games).
Mexican Birthday Traditions – In Mexico, kids love to have pinata’s at their birthday. A pinata is usually made out of paper mache (usually in the form of an animal or object), is filled with goodies and hung from the ceiling or a tree branch. The birthday child is blindfolded and hits the pinata until it is cracked open and all the goodies fall out. All the children then get to share the goodies.
Also, when a daughter reaches her 15th birthday (which is called a “quinceanera”), the birthday is celebrated with a special mass in her honor. This celebration often includes a religious ceremony at church, in which the young lady recognizes her heritage and her spiritual journey. A party is then given to introduce her to everyone as a young woman, and the father may dance a waltz with her. In some Latin American countries, a young woman changes her shoes from flats to heels during the ceremony (this is symbolic—it shows that she has moved on to a higher level of responsibility).
In Mexico there are two celebrations you have for your birthday. The first one is for your name or saint’s day, which on this day you attend church and a priest blesses you. Then you go home to have a party that includes relatives and close family friends. The saint’s day party is much quieter and more formal.
Native American Birthday Traditions – Throughout history, Native American tribes have usually placed significance on milestones in a child’s development rather than the day he or she was born. The day a child takes its first step is cause for just as much rejoicing as the day he or she accepts the responsibilities of an adult, gets married, becomes a parent, etc.
The Winnebago Indians have a big birthday and anyone can attend, people find out about birthday parties through word of mouth. These parties can last all evening and through the night. The birthday person can choose to eat whatever they like for their birthday and it is made for them. The cake is taken around and shown to the guests and it is considered an honor to be asked to cut the cake.
After the meal the children play a hand game. This is played by an adult holding a bone or stone in one of his or her hands and the children have to try to guess where it is.
American Birthday Traditions – At children’s parties, balloons and streamers are hung up and lots of friends are invited to the party. Sometimes the person having the birthday can choose what they want to do: bowling, swimming, arcades, amusement parks, camping trips, etc.
The majority of American children celebrate birthdays with a cake topped with lighted candles. Most families use the candles to represent how old a person is turning (and another one for good luck). For instance, a 2-year old will have 3 candles on the cake. When the cake is set before the birthday child, candles lit, he or she is supposed to make a wish (without telling anyone what it is) and after making a wish, he or she tries to blow out the candles. If all the candles go out with one breath, it is believed that the wish will come true!
Argentinian Birthday Traditions – In Argentina, the birthday child receives a pull on the earlobe for each year they have been alive.
Brazilian Birthday Traditions – In Brazil, the children usually eat candies shaped like fruits and vegetables. The houses are decorated for the occasion with festive banners and brightly colored paper flowers.
Ecuadorian Birthday Traditions – In Ecuador, when a girl turns 15, there is a great celebration and the girl wears a pink dress. The father puts on the birthday girl’s first pair of high heels and dances the waltz with her while 14 other girls and 14 other boys also dance the waltz.
Peruvian Birthday Traditions – In Peru, guests at a birthday party might receive two kinds of party favors. These are called “recordatorio”, which means souvenir. The first favor is a goody box or bag and the second is a pin made in honor of the event. These pins are so elaborate that some children might collect them. At these parties children almost always receive fancy paper hats.