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8 unique birthday traditions from around the world

8 unique birthday traditions from around the world

Every country, region, and family across the world has their own special customs to celebrate occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. Maybe your family visited a favorite restaurant each birthday, enjoyed an intricately decorated cake, or woke up to a big breakfast of pancakes.

Living or studying abroad gives you a chance to see how other cultures celebrate, so let’s take a look at eight cool birthday traditions from around the world.

1. Turning 20 in Japan 

In Japan, the biggest celebrations occur when someone reaches an age that holds special significance, much like the sweet sixteen tradition in the US. Turning 20 is a big deal in Japan as it means you’ve officially reached adulthood. This is celebrated with a ritual called the Seijin Shiki, or ceremony of adulthood. On the second Monday in January, known as Seijin no hi (coming of age day), those turning 20 years old visit city hall dressed in traditional outfits to hear a speech marking their rise to adulthood. Many may then visit a shrine to pray for good fortune or go out to celebrate with friends.

2. Ear pulling in Spain

As well as cake, singing, and presents, birthdays in Spain come with a curious ritual: ear pulling. According to this tradition, known as “los tirones de oreja”, the birthday person receives one gentle tug on the earlobe for each year of their age. While the exact origin and meaning of this quirky custom are not entirely clear, some believe that since the ears are one part of the body that never stops growing, pulling the ears may signify a longer life.

3. Celebrate with seaweed soup in South Korea

If you’re celebrating your birthday while studying abroad in South Korea, you can expect to be served a dish of miyeok-gook, seaweed soup. Tradition dictates that this healthy dish rich in iron and iodine is eaten on every birthday. This shows respect and thankfulness to one’s mother, as it’s a common meal for mothers to eat before and after giving birth.

4. Baby fortune telling in Malta

The Maltese tradition of the ‘Quċċija’ is a unique event that takes place on a child’s first birthday. At the birthday party, a number of items are laid out on the floor, and the child is encouraged to crawl to them and pick one. The objects symbolize various professions, and whichever one they pick is believed to foretell their future career. So a textbook may symbolize a college degree, a ball may represent a career as a sportsperson, and a coloring book may represent a future in the creative arts.

Even if you don't actively participate in a Quċċija, locals in Malta take great pride in this custom and enjoy sharing stories about their own experiences with it. Whether recounting tales of successful predictions or amusing anecdotes about unexpected choices made by the baby, Maltese people cherish the tradition and love to reminisce about it.

5. Avoid bad luck in Germany

Birthdays are a big deal in Germany. Everyone and anyone will go out of their way to wish you ‘Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!’ But only on the day, never ahead of time. Superstitions dictate that it’s very bad luck to wish someone a happy birthday in advance. You can celebrate your birthday on the eve of your birthday, known as ‘Reinfeiern’ but don’t expect any well wishes until the clock strikes midnight. 

6. Be king or queen for a day in France

In France, if your birthday falls in January, you’ll likely celebrate with a ‘Galette des Rois’ (King's Cake). It was eaten on Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas) but now you’ll find it in boulangeries throughout the month of January. It’s made of puff pastry, and stuffed with a dense, creamy almond paste called frangipane. The baker hides a small figurine inside the cake, and when the cake is cut up equally between everyone, the person who finds the figurine inside their piece is crowned king or queen for the day.

7. Enjoy fairy bread in Australia

There is a whole category of food items that only exist at birthday parties in Australia. These are typically simple, sugary treats that have been popular at children’s parties for decades. But the most popular of all is one called ‘fairy bread’. It’s white bread, slathered with butter, cut up in triangles, and covered with sprinkles (called 100s & 1000s).

8. Show your love through cake in Brazil

In Brazil, it's tradition to share the first slice of your birthday cake with the person you love the most. This might be a parent, sibling, or grandparent. Some families break it down even more with specific traditions and honors unique to them.

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