7 do’s when celebrating a birthday in Denmark

Birthdays. We all love them, we all hate them. We like to celebrate, but we do not like to age. Or how do you feel about it? In some cultures it is never celebrated, since it has no real value. In others it is celebrated more than anything else. And as you probably know the significance of the individual birthday differs alot across the world. For instance, in the US sweet 16 is a big deal. In latin countries quinceanera is the highlighted birthday, and in Denmark we often celebrate our 18th and 30th birthday with a little more effort.
As far as I remember I have always loved my birthdays, and it happened more times than I’m able to count that I would wake up at the stroke of midnight to tell everyone around me that it was in fact my birthday. To Danes our birthday is a special day, and boy do we like to celebrate it! So if you’re living in Denmark, you should be prepared if one of your colleagues or friends have a birthday coming up – because yes, you are expected to notice and to comment on it. Here are 7 do’s when celebrating a birthday in Denmark.

  1. Flags
    You probably already noticed this one, but we love our flag and we raise it as often as we can. And no, we’re not very patriotic or even nationalistic, but we consider our flag to be THE symbol of our birthday. We raise it in the flagpole in our garden, we put paper flags in the drive way, we put a small wooden flag on the table, and we put flags in our cake. If there are no flags is it even a birthday? To Danes no. Flags are represented from the very first birthday up until the last one. It knows no age, no social class, no ethnicity. It is what unites us when we are most divided, and it is the symbol of this union. Unfortunately one of our right wing political parties has used the flag a lot, and in many people’s opinion, taken it as hostage, which have made it very unpopular to raise the flag, because of it’s association with nationalism. However other political parties have refused this ‘hostage situation’ and demanded the flag to be unifying instead of dividing the people. So the next time you’re celebrating someone’s birthday, remember the flag! 

  2. Cake
    Like in many other countries, we Danes enjoy eating a cake at our birthday, but unlike many other cultures, we often bake it ourselves or go to the bakery to buy one – for ourselves. We do not consider cake a present. You typically see two types of cakes at birthday parties – depending on the birthday girl/boy’s age: lagkage or kagemand. Lagkage is a cake build up by cake layers, custard, fruit, and whipped cream in between. It comes in many shapes and sizes, but traditionally it is made of the aforementioned, and of course decorated with flags. Kagemand or kagekone is made of a kind of puff pastry, shaped like a tiny man or woman, and then decorated with frosting (Danish kind without butter and cream cheese) and pieces of candy – and of course flags, and sometimes candles. Kagemand and kagekone are quite difficult to make, so unless your kids have a grandparent with skills (and patience) we often buy it from the bakery. And by the way, it is delicious! Fun fact: When you slice the cake at the neck of the kagemand/kagekone, you’re supposed to scream.

  3. Singing
    If you have ever lived with a Dane, you know what happens in the morning of your birthday: singing! If there is one tradition I absolutely love, it is when we wake up the birthday girl/boy by singing ‘I dag er det X fødselsdag, hurra hurra hurraaa!’ (Danish version of happy birthday). We start out by singing it in a calm voice not to scare the person we are waking up, and then we end on a high note, to get the celebration started. We usually bring a present to the bed, and of course… flags! It is the best way to begin your birthday, and something I really miss after becoming a grown up – my kid does not know yet how to behave at my birthday…

  4. Presents
    An essential part of birthdays in Denmark are the presents. When we wake up we get a present from our family, and throughout the day we will be receiving presents (depending on our work- and family situation). The presents vary in size according to the receiver and the giver, as well as financial situation. Adult gifts are typically soft, and children’s gifts are typically hard – at least that’s how most people prefer it. We also typically receive flowers for our birthday, and wine or chocolate, if we invite people to our house to celebrate our birthday. 

  5. At the office
    Very often people talk about birthdays as a day for the child. They need to feel like they are the king of the world for one day, and that gifts and treats (and love, of course..) are being thrown at them. But… I think we should remember to celebrate the adults as well! Of course some adults don’t like to be reminded that they’re aging, but birthdays are an important ritual in human life, I believe. If you work at an office, or somewhere similar, I really do hope that you get to be celebrated by your coworkers. It is not rare that adults celebrate adults at work. They do so by decorating with flags, and many places they collect money from the coworkers and buy a nice present. Some places the celebration is accompanied by a beer or champagne (not during working hours, of course). It very much depends on the type of workplace and your coworkers. If no one does it at your place of work, maybe you should be the one introducing it?

  6. Children
    A thing worth remembering when you relocate to Denmark with kids, is that it is custom that the kid hands out some sort of treat at their birthday. When I was a child we typically brought ‘flødeboller’ or lollipops to school on our birthday, but as the years have gone by, several public institutions have made ‘sugar-policies’, meaning that you are not allowed to bring any treats consisting of sugar to school, making the birthday treats a bit more difficult (for the parent.). In kindergarden and daycare you typically bring fruit and/or bread rools, or little boxes of raisins or the like – again, stay away from the sugar. At school the birthday boy/girl will be celebrated in class, and the class mates will sing a birthday song. If the child is really lucky, they might even get to play a game, picked by the birthday boy/girl. To my recollection celebrating my birthday at school was quite a big deal, and handing out the treats made me feel like a mix between santa and Willy Wonka – best feeling! So, if you have a child, please remember this custom – for the sake of the child. And when in doubt, ask the teacher.

  7. Turning 25 and 30
    A very Danish tradition that really divides us, is how we celebrate the 25th and 30th birthdays. In some parts of Denmark it is custom to have cinnamon thrown at you when you turn 25 and you are un-married. The same happens when you turn 30 and you are un-married, but this time with pepper. The magnitude of this custom differs a lot: some people bake cinnamon rolls, or ‘pebernødder’ (christmas cookies with pepper), while others rent a canon, fill it with the spice, and tie the birthday girl/boy to a pole and start shooting the spice at the person (yes, it is exactly as horrible as it sounds). Some places they build a large pepper grinder out of barrels and place it in front of the person’s house. In my circle of friends we have never done any of the above, and quite frankly I would probably never speak to that friend again, who brought the spice-canon. It is important to note here that it is uncommon to be married at 25 in Denmark, and many people are still not married at 30, making the custom a bit out-dated and malplaced, in my opinion. However, the tradition with pepper when you turn 30 dates back to the 16th century when unmarried ‘elderly’ men, especially traders, were called ‘Pebersvend’. The female version ‘Pebermø’ dates back to the 18th century, but was not used as frequent as the male version, since it was very problematic, if women had not found a husband at age 30. 

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