It has been said that Danish birthdays are the most important in the world. Adults, children, even the Queen of Denmark make a big deal about birthdays. And there is specific set of birthday rules and traditions for every age and role you play in life. Let’s face it, Danish birthday traditions are a minefield for foreigners. Get it wrong and you could make some serious birthday faux pas.
For example, if the sun is shining on your birthday, you may find Danish people thanking you. ‘Thanks for the sunshine’ they’ll say. This is because in Danish tradition, the weather on your birthday reflects your behavior over the past year. If you’ve been good, the weather is good. If you’ve been bad….well, then. You get depressing, grey, Danish rain.
Danish flag on your desk
Even if it’s raining, your Danish birthday starts first thing in the morning. Your family will wake you up with breakfast in bed and your birthday presents. You good friends will send you text messages. You might even get a few birthday cards in the mail from older Danish ladies.
But you have responsibilities on your birthday as well. If you work in an office, you should bring cake or candy to share on your birthday. You can either bring this to an afternoon meeting or put out an email around 2pm saying that cake is available in the break room. Now, this was originally a little confusing for me, because where I come from, the colleagues buy the cake for the birthday boy or girl. In Denmark, you buy the cake. The same principle applies if you meet your friends for drinks after work – you buy the drinks to celebrate your birthday, not the other way around.
One thing your colleagues will do is put a Danish flag on your desk. Most offices have a small desktop Danish flag hanging around just for this purpose. In general, the Danish flag is closely linked to birthday celebrations, or, in fact, any celebration in Denmark. Some foreigners who are newly arrived misunderstand this as patriotism or nationalism. No, no, no. In this context, the Danish flag just means a party.
So, if someone is giving a party, they will even put up a little pathway of paper Danish flags to guide people there. If you’re invited to a party and aren’t quite sure where it is, look for lights, music, and Danish flags.
Kids get layer cake, treasure hunts
Danish children’s birthday parties are usually pretty modest, compared to the competitive birthday parties you see in other countries, with magicians and bouncy castles and so forth. In Denmark, the kids eat some buns, play some games, eat some layer cake, and go on a treasure hunt, and go home with a bag of candy. In my daughter’s class they actually do communal birthday parties – all the kids born in winter get together for one party, all the kids born in spring get together, etc. This is great, because everybody gets invited, and you have four or five other parents to help plan the party with.
Adult parties can also be very casual – depending on what birthday it is. If your friend is turning 18 or 27, there will probably be a lot of music or alcohol. All you need to do is show up in jeans and a T-shirt with some beer. If your friend is turning 38 or 47, there will probably be a Sunday lunch with a lot of family, and if you’re invited too, all you need to do is show up in jeans and a sweater with some flowers or some cake or your kids. You don’t really need to buy a gift, and if you want to, something small is fine – a book, or some fancy candy. 100-200kr is enough to spend for an ordinary Danish birthday.
Beware the round birthday party
But if your friend is turning 30 or 40 or 50, that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s a round birthday. It’s a big deal. Your friend will throw a big party, hire out a room in a restaurant or even the entire restaurant, or put up a tent in the backyard and invite everyone she knows. Sometimes in smaller towns people will even put an ad in the newspaper, saying that anyone who knows the person having a birthday can just drop by for an open house. This can be fun: sometimes people they haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years that turn up and say hi.
At any rate, for these round birthdays, the dress code is much more formal. Businesswear for men and dresses or very fancy blouses for women, and much more expensive presents. Minimum 500 crowns for a present for a round birthday. Buy your friend an elaborate photo book or DVD box set, jewelry, or a certificate for dinner in a fancy restaurant. Keep in mind, if you get a formal invitation to a round birthday, it’s a sign that the person holding a birthday sees you as a close friend, so you should definitely show up if you can.
Of course, some people don’t want to hold a party, for various reasons. And if they don’t, it’s become a trend to plan a trip abroad to celebrate the round birthday. I know one family with a parent turning 40 that went to New York, and another one with a parent turning 60 who planned a sunny charter vacation to Turkey. Getting away on a round birthday is actually what I do. I’m not much of a party giver, so on my last round birthday I took a chocolate-shopping trip to Brussels.
Anyway, if you don’t go away on your round birthday and make a big deal of it, people will think it’s odd that you’re not inviting them to a party. Or they may wonder if there was a party you didn’t invite them to.
Pepper and Cinnamon
Now, that’s the basics of Danish birthdays. But there’s the advanced class, too: for example, if a Dane isn’t married by age 25, his friends douse him or her with cinnamon on his 25th birthday. (You’ll find Danish-language guides on the internet for how to get large amounts of cinnamon out of your clothes.) At age 30, it’s pepper. You get doused with pepper on your 30th birthday if you’re not married. And there are regional variations, too – on the island of Fyn, there’s a special type of brown cake, brunsviger, that’s served on birthdays.
But the most important advanced birthday etiquette surrounds the Queen. At noon on April 16 of each year, she and all the members of the royal family in good standing (or the ones she likes) go out on the balcony at one of her castles and wave to the crowds below.
You can join the crowd too – your only job is to wave back. And remember to bring your best birthday accessory, a bright red Danish flag.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023