In our family we all have birthdays between December and March, so winter is Birthday Season for us. Jason’s early December birthday usually gets subsumed by Hanukah and Christmas, but he can’t complain too much though as his birthday meal is usually latkes, homemade applesauce, and brisket. This year we went to the Christmas Market for Glühwein and treats on his birthday, and later he met a friend for a beer. But since Jason and I have passed the forty-year mark, we actually try not to think much about our birthdays, so real Birthday Season begins when we take down the Christmas tree and Walter starts to list everything he didn’t get for Christmas or Hanukah, so therefore wants for his birthday!
Born in mid-January, Walter has grown accustomed to celebrating everything important – meaning all holidays for which he receives gifts – in a very compact amount of time. He’s not terribly fond of birthday parties, as they can be overwhelming for him, but faced with the likely prospect of no party with friends this year (due to the Kindergarten chaos), he was worried about how he’d celebrate his special day.
To help compensate for his homesickness, I sent out a plea to a host of his friends and family back home, asking that they send him cards filled with pictures, artwork and stickers. Thanks to his many good friends, Walter was showered with birthday cards, receiving an average of one a day for two weeks straight. He had no idea that I asked people to send him things, so he was genuinely touched that so many people had remembered his birthday. The cards now hang around his doorway, so each time he enters his room, he’s reminded of the friends back home who love him. And his sticker collection is second to none.
We celebrated his birthday (on lucky Friday the 13th!) with a family party, filled with lots of Lego gifts and a repeat viewing of one of the Star Wars movies. For dinner we ate his favorite meal – lasagna with pesto béchamel sauce. The next week he started his new Kindergarten, and after a rough couple days, he asked if he could celebrate his birthday at school. School birthday celebrations here are a huge deal, so I thought his asking for one was a good sign. He brought in cake to share with his new class, and his teachers gave him gifts – a nice set of colored pencils, a finger trap game, and a backpack reflector trinket. Walter was excited by the gifts and reported that the kids “loved the cake.” I think the fact that he got to celebrate his special day with these new classmates helped to break the ice and start to transform strangers into friends. It was a huge turning point for Walter, so I’m grateful for what turned out to be his well-timed birthday.
Greta’s early February birthday falls nearly in the exact middle of our Birthday Season. At her age, birthday parties are a bit in flux, even more so in a new country when still getting used to the cultural norms. So Greta was a bit unsure of what type of party to have, although she was sure she didn’t want to pass up a one-time chance to celebrate her birthday with her friends here. She decided on a classic pizza party, featuring a neighborhood-wide scavenger hunt as the main activity.
Nine girls, including Greta, gathered at our house on a Saturday afternoon. Jason took Walter and Anya to a friends’ house, returning with the younger siblings in time for cake and farewells. My brother Rob, who was visiting for a few weeks, and I, stayed to host the party. But more than any other children’s birthday party I’ve experienced, this one seemed to run itself. Greta’s friends were gracious and mature, excited to honor Greta and make sure she had a great birthday in Germany.
After everyone arrived, we sent the girls out into the frosty, dim afternoon to find or photograph a list of eleven items (for Greta’s eleventh birthday), which I’d carefully written up in the best German I could muster. The list included such items as: a piece of chocolate for the pizza chefs, photos of three bike riders, eleven bottle caps, and an item which starts with the letter “G” (for Greta) in both German and English. Rob and I watched the pack of girls enthusiastically descend on our neighborhood, and then return in an hour’s time, rosy cheeked from the cold and successful in their search for every item. My favorite find was a small plastic charm in the shape of a Christmas present they’d found on the sidewalk – “gift” in English and “Geschenk” auf Deutsch.
After they’d warmed up and inhaled some snacks, Greta opened her presents. To choose the order for opening, Greta spun a bottle; she opened the present of the girl to which the bottle pointed. I love this twist on what most Americans know as an awkward party game usually reluctantly (for me at least) played at teenage parties. Perhaps German teenagers also play this version of spin-the-bottle, but I’d rather remember it as German children’s birthday gift roulette. Her friends were sweet and generous, giving her books in German tailored to her ever-improving German reading level, craft items, sweets, and two games. Three friends chipped in and gave her Göttingen Monopoly, a great souvenir to remember streets and landmarks here.
When it was time to eat, Rob and I set out plates full of pizza toppings with which the girls could cover their personal-sized pizzas. Rob, master pizza chef that he is, pumped out the dough and then cooked over a dozen pizzas to feed the party guests and family of the birthday girl. It was quite an operation, and earned him rave reviews, like, “This is exactly like a restaurant, but the pizza is better!” The girls ate, and toasted Greta, and then played a game where by when one of them said “Peter” the group had to eat like she did until she said “Paul” to change the action to something else. It took Rob and me, and our slow German, awhile to figure out why the girls were standing on chairs, using no hands, or speed-eating pizza!
After enjoying Greta’s coconut birthday cake, we turned out the lights in the house so the girls could use the glow sticks they’d earned for their successful scavenger hunt to search for gift bags Anya had hidden throughout the apartment. The party could have lasted much longer with these wonderful girls truly enjoying each other’s company, but parents arrived and guests said their good-byes. Greta was glowing with joy at such a wonderful party.
Two days later was Greta’s actual birthday, so she brought chocolate brownies to school for her class, which were a giant hit. Like at Jewish weddings, birthday children here are lifted up in chairs, while the lifters sing, “Hoch soll sie leben!” (High shall she live!), one of several birthday celebration songs. Greta’s class treated her to this tradition, which she said was fun! After school we all took Greta to Göttingen’s premier bakery, Cron & Lanz, for delectable cake in the fancy, chandeliered dining room.
Anya’s birthday follows ten days after Greta’s, so we keep the momentum going. Anya also got to celebrate her birthday in school, with M&M cookies brought from home and the chair raising and song. She got to choose the kids to lift her in the air – seven girls and one boy, which almost mirrors the gender ratio in her class. When I picked her up from school, Anya was happily handing out pieces of the extra cookies to eager classmates, hungry after the class’s weekly swim lessons. As we left, her friends excitedly yelled more birthday congratulations and expressed excitement for the party the next day.
By the time of Anya’s party, Uncle Rob had been swapped for my sister, Aunt Clara. Jason took Walter elsewhere for some Star Wars-related male bonding, while Clara, Greta and I stayed for the party, which included eleven super-excited second grade girls! While these second-graders were a bit more energetic than the fifth-graders, these girls too kept the party moving with an ever-expanding list of party games. Germans love to play games, especially board games and party games. So every child had a game she wanted to play, and Anya enthusiastically agreed. Kids tried to tell me the rules, but their excited explanations were too fast for me, so I sent them to Anya whose German is now just as quick as her friends. I watched as the girls tangled themselves in knots, giggled, ran around, hid around corners – whatever the game called for. Their glee was all I needed to understand.
The girls ate snacks faster than I could put them out, fuel for their joyous frenzy. They did quiet down for a bit while they made beads, animals, fruit and other trinkets out of quick-baking clay. They traded balls of colorful clay and sang and chatted. In addition to knowing tons of games, German kids also know lots of good group songs as a result of an early emphasis on choir and singing, so when one girl started to sing, the rest joined in, including dear Anya. Their beautiful voices filled the kitchen as their hands worked the clay.
Anya’s friends were generous with their gifts, so she spun the bottle many times to unwrap the books, crafts, games, sweets and other presents. Parents and children were eager to ask what Anya might want for her birthday, but because she couldn’t decide, she asked everyone for eine Überraschung – a surprise. She got what she asked for, and was thrilled. She loved all of her gifts, but the family’s favorite is the game Dixit, which I won’t explain here, but I highly recommend for families with younger children.
After Daddy’s famous cheesecake and Anya’s second chair-raising, we hung up the piñata. Anya was excited to introduce this Mexican party tradition, now so popular at American birthday parties, to her friends here in Germany. Only a few girls had heard of a piñata, but once they learned it was filled with candy, they were more than excited to try to break it open! I couldn’t find an actual piñata here, and didn’t have the time or patience for papier-maché, so Anya and I made one out of two paper bags, which we filled with treats and confetti and then decorated with streamers.
As always, the kids had to really beat on it to break it open. We went through three rounds of three hits from eleven girls, so when almost 100 whacks didn’t work, big sister and little brother got turns, and then finally Daddy and Mama employed well placed smacks and rips to let the goodies loose. As the girls gathered their booty, parents started to arrive, but the girls were reluctant to let themselves be dragged home. Parents gathered in the kitchen to chat, while the girls’ unyielding energy morphed into a giant pillow fight.
German parents seem much more willing to let children’s chaos play its course. There is much less children’s play management here than in the States. It’s refreshing, but something to which I’m still getting accustomed. While a stereotype of Germans is that they like order, when it comes to children’s celebrations and play, parents don’t tend to interfere or demand a false sense of calm. Parents watch, or not, but they generally let the kids play. Perhaps this is why by the time they are fifth-graders, kids can more or less manage their own parties. And certainly this is one reason why so many children here share in a common culture of birthday games, songs and rituals.
So, I let the pillow fight happen, squelching my American parental urge to rein in the kids. After a bit, parents collected their children, as Greta discretely hid the pillows. Little girl hugs and squeals continued until the last party guest departed. Our apartment was littered with confetti, which we continue to find everywhere. Anya was exhausted, but satisfied with a successful party and time with her darling brood of girls.
Usually Valentine’s Day comes right in the middle of our birthday season, so while I’m juggling party invitations and gift bags, I’m also making sure the kids have sufficient Valentines made to cover each child in their respective classes. Thankfully, Valentine’s Day isn’t celebrated by children here. Anya told her friend, Esther, about the tradition, and the two of them cut-out hearts and covered them with glitter for each other and their families. Sweet and simple.
A couple other celebrations did weave themselves into our birthday parties this year though. In late-January, Anya’s class said farewell to their main teacher, Frau Laspe, who had been with the class for a year-and-a-half, and with Anya since August. She’d been a teacher at Albanischule for nearly three decades, helping introduce many new pedagogical and curricular innovations, including a beloved science laboratory. The class feted her with an afternoon of sweets and games. The school kitchen was filled with various cakes and candies, the classroom with board games, and the gymnasium with loud energetic revelry; the kids all enjoyed what each room had to offer. Each child brought in a small gift that together filled a lovely antique suitcase. Anya gave her a maple leaf-shaped bottle of maple syrup and a maple leaf pin from Danforth Pewter in Middlebury. At one point, the chaos in the gym was interrupted for games and songs in honor of Frau Laspe. It was a classic example of a German party, and a nice way to say good-bye to a fine teacher.
Children in this part of Germany also celebrate Faschingstag or Rosenmontag on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. It’s the children’s day during an extended Carnival. The specific traditions vary greatly in Germany, with Köln being the city that goes completely wild for Carnival, comparable to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Each of the children’s schools celebrated Faschingstag to some degree, and they all went to school in costumes and with treats to share with their classmates. Anya’s school reserved the entire day for revelry during which kids paraded around the school and surrounding area in elaborate costumes (Anya’s was one of the simplest in her class) and danced to loud music. Children also gorged themselves on candy; our homemade sugar cookies with rainbow sprinkles were apparently too healthy for most kids to try. It was a bit overwhelming for Anya, but she enjoyed the creative costumes her friends donned.
The kids in Walter’s Kindergarten loved our sugar cookies, and the usually party-shy Walter had lots of fun dancing and celebrating with his new friends. Greta’s class voted to celebrate Faschingstag, as their teacher was of the opinion that they might be too old for it. So, they took a mellower approach, but still came to school costumed with treats to share. For several days during the week of Carnival, it was not unusual to see people walking around in costumes, and the number of little girls showing off fairy wings and face paint was noticeably larger than usual. It all made up for a somewhat under-whelming Halloween for our kids, and I think, makes more sense than begging for candy at strangers’ houses.
My mid-March birthday officially marks the end of Birthday Season in our family. Jason and I went out for a wonderful dinner at a nearby restaurant, while the kids stayed home playing cops-and-robbers with their teenage-boy babysitter. Jason and I ordered the Überraschungsmenu, which was a four-course surprise selected by the chef. Everything from the fruity mixed-drink, to the perfectly seared lamb, to the luscious chocolate mousse was wonderful. Jason, who’s been out a lot during his many guest lectures here, said it was the best meal he’s had in Europe – I’m so happy we shared it for my birthday.
I also enjoyed my time to myself, which I spent reading a good book (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks), doing yoga (42 sun salutes), and taking a bubble bath. The family gave me some wonderful gifts, including lots of chocolate and crafts, and a lovely necklace with a string of five moonstones. Greta says it’s my Fünf in Deutschland necklace. And so it shall be.
Celebrations, birthdays and holidays, bond people together. They solidify friendships, teach about a culture, and make you feel comfortable in a new place. Our birthday season, planted in the middle of our time here in Germany, did just that. It made new friends, even better friends, and gave each of us a tighter connection to our adopted home and our family’s place in it.