Do you know someone whose birthday is coming up? Maybe you live in Germany and are wondering how to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Or perhaps you don’t live in a German speaking country, but would like to wish a happy birthday to your Sprachpartner (language partner).
In this post we will look at how to say ‘happy birthday’ in German, as well as some of the birthday traditions that are common in Germany.
Herzlichen Glückwunch zum Geburtstag
Meaning: Heartfelt congratulations on your birthday
The first of the two most common ways to say happy birthday in German. This looks like the most German phrase ever, and seems much more complicated than a simple ‘happy birthday’. But don’t be intimidated by the length of it. Let’s break it down a bit:
- Herzlichen = Heartfelt
- Glückwunch = Congratulations / wishes
- zum Geburtstag = on / to the birthday
So literally translated it means ‘heartfelt congratulations on your birthday’.
A wonderful, warm birthday wish that you can give to anyone. If you’re finding it a bit of a mouthful, you can always shorten it to Herzlichen Glückwunch (heartfelt congratulations).
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag
Meaning: All the best on your birthday
If you’re finding the first phrase a bit of a tongue twister (Zungenbrecher = tongue breaker!) there is another really common phrase that’s a bit easier to pronounce.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag literally means ‘all the best on your birthday’.
This is my go-to birthday wish as I find it much easier to remember and to say!
You can even make things even easier by simply saying alles Gute, which is just like saying ‘all the best’.
Alles Liebe zum Geburtstag
Meaning: Much love on your birthday
The previous phrases are great for general use, but what if you want a more personal birthday wish? Alles Liebe zum Geburtstag roughly translates as ‘much love on your birthday’. Keep this one for family and close friends.
Herzlichen Glückwunch Nachträglich
Meaning: Belated happy birthday
What if you’ve just realised it was a friend’s birthday a few days ago? If you want to wish someone a belated happy birthday, you need to learn the word nachträglich. This means ‘afterwards’ or ‘belatedly’.
You can put this word at the front or at the end of any of the above phrases, to make it a belated birthday wish.
- Alles Gute (zum Geburtstag) nachträglich
- Nachträglich alles Gute zum Geburtstag
- (Herzlichen) Glückwunch nachträglich
- Nachträglich herzlichen Glückwunch
And don’t forget, learn a few ways to say ‘thank you’ in German, in case someone wishes you ‘happy birthday’.
How to Say ‘When is Your Birthday?’ in German
Talking about when your, or someone else’s birthday is in German is a little different to English. In English we say ‘today is my birthday’ but in German we use the verb haben (to have).
- Heute habe ich Geburtstag = Today I have birthday (today is my birthday)
- Wann hast du Geburtstag? = When do you have birthday? (when is your birthday?)
Of course, this sounds a little unusual to English speakers but German often uses haben (to have) instead of of sein (to be) for example: ich habe Hunger (I have hunger = I am hungry).
Celebrating Birthdays in Germany
If you have forgotten someone’s birthday and would like to say ‘happy belated birthday’, that is completely fine in Germany. Wishing someone ‘happy birthday’ in advance of the big day is not so good.
Here are some of the German birthday traditions that you need to know to avoid any embarrassing faux pas.
No Birthday Wishes in Advance
When you think about how stereotypically level-headed Germans tend to be, you’d think that they wouldn’t be that big on superstitions. However wishing the Geburtstagskind (birthday ‘child’) a happy birthday in advance is a big no-no.
In English speaking countries we wouldn’t think twice about wishing someone a happy birthday in advance if we’re not going to see that person on their birthday, but don’t do this in Germany. Even if you say it just a few hours before midnight, it’s believed to bring bad luck.
Although it’s not a good idea to wish the Geburtstagskind a happy birthday in advance, you can absolutely get the party started beforehand. Reinfeier literally means ‘to celebrate into’, and is a tradition where friends and family of the Geburtstagskind start the birthday celebrations the evening before the birthday.
The guests are encouraged to stay until the clock strikes midnight, a bit like new year’s eve. Only then can everyone wish the Geburtstagskind a happy birthday.
Treats for Everyone
When you have a birthday in Germany, rather than your work colleagues organising a cake for you, it is expected that you bring in the cakes! The Geburtstagskind always brings a birthday cake or other treats in to share with their workmates.
While it may sound a little odd, it’s actually a really nice way of sharing your day with others. Plus it’ll definitely make you popular with your workmates.
This is also the norm for children, so they will bring cakes and sweet treats into school for their friends.
Paying the Bill
Just like bringing cakes in to work, when your friends organise a birthday meal for you, be sure to bring your wallet. In many English speaking countries, the Geburtstagskind can usually expect to be treated by their friends and family and have their meal paid for them.
Not so in Germany. You will be expected to pay for your own bill, and sometimes for the whole party. Birthdays are your chance to celebrate with and treat your friends and family.
The ‘Happy Birthday Song’ in German
Fortunately for us English speakers, Germans commonly sing the English version of the ‘happy birthday song’. In fact, most German speakers will sing the English ‘happy birthday song’ as standard.
However there is also a German version set to the same tune:
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück,
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück,
Zum Geburtstag alles Gute,
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück.
While Germans have the same traditional birthday cake and candles that us English speakers are familiar with, they also have another, lesser known tradition. This one is reserved for children and is a birthday wreath.
Commonly made of wood, this decorated ring has 12 holes or candle holders to represent each year of the child’s life. There is also a larger candle in the middle for good luck. On each birthday another candle is added to the wreath and lit until all the candles plus the centre candle are lit, reaching a milestone in the child’s life.
So now you know how to say ‘happy birthday’ in German and have learned about some of the German birthday customs.
If you enjoyed this post, there are many more posts in the How to Say … in German series.