The everyday exotic: children’s birthday parties

German happy birthday

Pretty sure the sign says “happy birthday.” But it should say, “Look out everyone, I’m 3.”

“They told you about the breakfast, right?”

Mrs. S, one of the English-speaking teachers at E’s bilingual kindergarten gave me a knowing look as I picked up E on Thursday afternoon. E’s birthday was the next day, but the school was closed, so his birthday would be celebrated at school on Monday.

Living as an expat, I expect a certain amount of unease and awkwardness every day. Even though I muddle through with a combination of mimicry, study and common sense, because of subtle differences, I manage to get plenty of things wrong. I still want to turn right on red. I still forget that the coin in my pocket is worth 2 Euros. I still smile at strangers as I walk past them.

I had been anxious about his birthday since before our move. Only in Germany for two weeks so far, and having just started kindergarten, we didn’t have any friends—or an actual home—for a proper birthday party. I did want to make sure it was recognized in some way, however, so I had been asking and checking with the teachers for a few days about the school’s policy. In E’s previous school, they had a policy against bringing snacks or treats, but celebrated in other non-food ways. I loved this policy because 1) why introduce more sugar into a toddler’s day? and 2) I am lazy. I really don’t want to kill myself making the crazy cupcakes I saw on Pinterest for a crowd that judges worthiness by how well the frosting stains their lips and tongue.

“The family of the birthday child brings something for breakfast,” one of the teachers told me. “A bread or treat, something like that.”

It seemed easy enough, and since I didn’t have a real kitchen yet, it also seemed like something I could pick up at the bakery on the way to school.

But then I spoke with Mrs. S.

“No, no. You bring the whole breakfast,” she explained. “It’s the custom.”

I”m not sure if it’s the custom in Germany or just the custom at this kindergarten, but either way I would need to bring some sort of bread, a protein, some fruit and a treat. For 25 children. Oh, and one student can’t eat dairy and one student doesn’t eat meat.

The good news is that I managed to find out ahead of time, but with grocery stores closed on Sunday and a very limited kitchen for cooking or storing food, we needed a plan.

I settled on a spiced breakfast bread with butter, (a few without for the dairy-free) sliced cheese, a fruit salad of melon and oranges and mini chocolate donuts for the “treat.”

Birthday breakfast in German Kindergarten

Breakfast, ready and waiting.

It seemed well-received and E was very happy to share his love of donuts with his class. The birthday child also gets some of the expected perks: A banner and their picture on the door, wearing of the Birthday Crown and the Wish Stone.

Chocolate doughnuts

E’s birthday wish fulfilled: A pile a doughnuts. What more could anyone want?

I had never heard of the Wish Stone before, but I love the idea of it. The children and teachers sit in a circle and pass around a small, smooth stone. As each child holds the stone, they tell the birthday child their wish for him or her. Then, when the birthday child is handed the stone, after it has gone all the way around the circle, the stone is warm. Which the teacher explained was because it was so full of wishes. 

We did manage to have a nice birthday for E in our hotel room, complete with presents, a few decorations and cupcakes from the neighborhood bakery. But my favorite part of his 3rd birthday is the small, somewhat ordinary-looking stone, filled with wishes from new friends in a new country.

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