16 May 2007

American birthday customs

Alors moi qui pensais que 99% des lecteurs de ce blog étaient des Americains... voilà pourquoi je trouvais qu'il était inutile de décrire les coutumes en matière de fêtes d'anniversaire en Amérique.

I don't think the average American would ever organize a birthday party for him- or herself. When our birthdays come around, we generally say nothing and we wait for our friends, relatives, or co-workers to organize a celebration of some kind. Or not.

Of course no rule is hard and fast, and as we say, it's the exception that proves the rule. I'm sure some Americans will come back and say I'm exaggerating, if not just plain wrong, about the American birthday party rule.

When I worked in Silicon Valley, we would take our co-workers out to lunch for their birthday. It was the managers' responsibility to keep track of birthdays among their "direct reports" (members of the team they managed) and make sure nobody's birthday was ever overlooked. The person whose birthday was being celebrated was the only one who did NOT pay at the restaurant — all the others paid for his or her lunch.

When it's your birthday, you don't pay and you get to do anything you please that day — within reason, of course. It's the one day of the year when everybody else has to pay for you, and be nice to you. See?

From an American's point of view, or mine at least, it seems slightly immodest to ask people to celebrate your birthday with you, because it requires calling attention to yourself. I understand why in France the person who's having a birthday invites, meaning pays the bill for, the people asked to join in the celebration at a restaurant, or does all the food-buying and cooking for a dinner at home. It would be pretty bold to make a direct request that your friends take you out to a restaurant or cook for you. So if you take the initiative, you bear the birthday costs.

However, if the people invited to a French birthday event are, as you say, expected to contribute to the cost of the meal and perhaps also to the cost of a gift, that just reinforces the immodesty of it all. Tell me: is it considered proper in France to decline an invitation to join in someone's birthday celebration? Or do you really have no choice but to accept the invitation?

In the U.S., you wait for your friends, relatives, or co-workers to take the initiative when it comes to celebrating your birthday. You don't push the issue or call attention to the upcoming birthday (if you do, you have to be very subtle). You might say to a co-worker, for example: "Oh, you know, my birthday is next Thursday." But then you add: "I really don't want anybody to know." Or "I don't want anybody to make a fuss over it." And you have to say it with some semblance of sincerity.

As the cynic once said, the key to success in life is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made.

Some people (like me, I confess) are just as happy when nobody notices that they are having another birthday. "Another day older and deeper in debt," as the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song said. Others are deeply disappointed if people don't remember their birthday and make a fuss.

If you want to throw yourself a birthday party in America, one way you can do it decently is to avoid telling the people you invite that the occasion for the gathering is your birthday, especially in advance of the party. And this is particularly true in the case of invited co-workers. To do otherwise might be interpreted as putting pressure on co-workers to give you a gift. There is just no proper way to ask people, or appear to be asking people, even your friends, to give you a gift.

I guess we Americans are more hypocrites when it comes to our birthdays than you French are. Our feelings can be hurt if nobody remembers our birthday, but it would be bad form to do anything about it. French people just come right out and invite people themselves. This is one of the few occasions where French people are more direct and forward than Americans are.


By the way, what is the definition of the term surprise-party in French? I think the expression is now old-fashioned, but my question is: Was there ever an element of surprise involved in such a party in France?

In America, a surprise party is just that: the person being honored doesn't know a party has been organized and is surprised when he or she finds out that all these friends have gathered together for the celebration. When the guest of honor arrives at the party, through some ruse of a close friend, the other guests yell "Surprise!" in unison as the door opens, much to the suprise (and joy, we hope) of the guest of honor.


It's raining this morning. The photo on the right shows our tomato plants ready to be set out in the garden, but waiting for the rain to end and the temperature to rise.

I hope the alternate-month rule really works when it comes to the weather in Saint-Aignan. It was very hot and dry in April. Now it is pretty cool and damp in May. I hope the weather will again be hot and dry in June. And July and August and September, for that matter. While we're hoping, October too...


  1. Another way to throw a birthday party for yourself (generally for a milestone birthday, say, when you turn 40) is to have your spouse or relative or good friend issue the invitations, even if it's at your house.

    The person issuing the invitations figures out a nice way to put "no gifts" on the invitation. Then, if you're lucky, your guests just bring you cards or flowers.

  2. I'm with you. I would prefer that everyone forget my birthday forever. In fact I think it would be downright thoughtful of them to discreetly ignore it even if they do remember it.

    And I with I could issue one simple worldwide notice of apology for all the birthday wishes I've failed to give. There are surely hundreds of them.

    An interesting cultural difference. Again you are on target.

  3. Gabby Walters17 May, 2007 22:52

    I celebrated my birthday by inviting about 30 people to a reception at a fine local hotel. It was my 70th. The invitation said it was a birthday party to help me celebrate, but no gifts, please. It was a lot of fun. Cheers. Gabby

  4. I really do prefer the French way. You choose to have a good time with friends you like, they may not buy you something, it's not expected, but since these friends like you... they buy a token, sometimes it's a beautiful gift, sometimes it's something that will talk to you, something special!!!
    It's better to have a good time than being with people who don't really care about you :D not that co-workers don't care, but they're not friends!!!

  5. I agree with Tempête, I prefer celebrating my birthday with people who are dear to me than with colleagues even if I do appreciate a lot of my colleagues... I love inviting my friends at... the restaurant and having... dh paying for the bill, lol !!!

    Some good friends always prepare what used to be called a "surprise party" in the 60's (now, as you say,the term is obsolete), i.e. they issue the invitations without telling their spouse about it... I'll always remember one of our good friends'40th birthday : her dh invited more than 50 people and asked everybody to cook something or buy a dish or bring a bottle of champagne, etc. His wife didn't know anything and believed she was going to attend a "repas de chasse" at a friend's so she didn't really dress up... She must have noticed the itinerary was a bit strange but didn't realize what was really awaiting her until she came into a huge dark "salle des fêtes" and suddenly saw more than 50 people clapping and singing "joyeux anniversaire" when the lights switched on all of a sudden... I'll always remember my friend with her small bouquet in her hands discovering the all of us... What a surprise for her !

    At high school, we celebrate some birthdays but in a more or less discreet way... Voilà ! Bises et bonne journée ! Marie

  6. I think the only time I ever threw a party for my birthday was when I turned fifty. One of my friends actually talked me into it and I hated the whole process, as I feel uncomfortable with more than six people around. But that's very unFrench or un-anything, it's just me. I swore that I'd never do it again, and never did. I even managed NOT to have people throw a retirement party for me. Didn't get a retirement present, and loved it ;)


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?