My birthday is Aug. 30. On my birthday I do as much fun stuff as possible, postpone as much not-fun stuff as possible, and eat whatever I want. I pick the movie to watch and the game to play. Dinner is a steak (medium rare), fried onions, potatoes, broccoli, and beer, then buttered and salted popcorn for dessert. Cakes and candles are long gone, but post-dinner presents are nice. Basically, I am King for the Day on my birthday.
In the Czech Republic, however, the custom is a little bit different. You can have fun, put off chores, and eat whatever, but at many places where I have worked there is an additional custom that definitely undercuts the King for the Day ideal: it is normal that you buy drinks, prepare food and sweets, and throw a party for yourself and your colleagues.
What? Say again? I should do what? Me buying drinks, chlebíčky, and cake; me schlepping everything to work on a packed tram; and me dealing with the social awkwardness of inserting my-birthday-self into the middle of everyone’s workday? These are all perfect examples of not-fun things that I would rather avoid on my birthday. Nevertheless, since I live in Brno, I have tried to follow the local traditions as much as possible. It comes out to several hundred crowns every year.
Not all companies, of course, are the same when it comes to birthdays. Some give you a personal day off. One combines all of the birthday celebrants of the given month into one cocktail hour. Sometimes colleagues simply eat finger food, drink a bit of wine, and shake hands. Other times you get public recognition during the monthly all-hands meeting, with management presenting chocolate and a firm handshake and the staff singing “Živijó”, a Slavic birthday song. Some companies ignore the local custom completely.
Of course, like most everything that I have encountered as an expat, I got used to the local birthday traditions and I have even grown to like them. It is a nice break from the routine and a fulfilling way to give back to the people you like. (And, really, most of the time colleagues chip in for a gift.)
Universally, people either love or hate marking another year of life. I usually don’t care, but I am getting up to where the number is starting to annoy me. Others ignore the actual age altogether. My wife, for example, is 25 every year. (Our first year together, I gave her a card that mentioned her age as 25. It caused her teenage niece to experience a minor ethical dilemma: should she reveal the truth or allow her aunt to conceal her true age. A loss of innocence, perhaps.)
In general, it seems that birthdays are more symbolic in America. There are several big milestones – 16, 21, 25, and 40 – to which people look forward very much.
16 – No more school bus or bumming rides from your friends because: you can finally drive! Not everyone has a car when they turn 16, but the cool kids spend their early teens mowing lawns or babysitting so that they do. A rule of thumb: if you want to kiss a member of the opposite sex, you cannot be seen riding the school bus to high school.
21 – You can drink (legally)! I had lived away from my mother and completed three years of university before I could drink a beer without risking jail time. Now that I have lived in the Czech Republic for more than 11 years, I have begun to realize how truly strange it is to make young adults wait so long for that first legal drink. It really only makes the activity more rebellious and, therefore, more likely.
25 – You can save money on your car insurance! When people turn this magical age, the actuarial charts say that their risk of an accident is low enough to justify offering a discount on auto insurance.
40 – You’re over the hill! The first 40 years are moving up to the peak and the second 40 years are the slide down into the grave. (I asked my friends to wear black to my 40th birthday party. It was rainy and cold but we had a lot of alcohol and fun – just how I hope my real funeral will be.)
Czechs don’t seem to put as much value on turning 18, the drinking age and driving age, and auto insurance is not such a terrible encumbrance here. The thing Czechs do, though, is celebrate “round” years; age 40 is a good one, but 50 seems to be their big milestone.
Paying for alcohol is not unique to the Czech Republic, of course. The wedding couple pays for their party. Whenever you win a lot at the horse track, it is bad form – and bad luck for your future bets – to not buy a few rounds at the bar. And, on many recreational football teams, the guy who scored his first goal, the guy who scored a hat trick, or the guy who played his last game is the guy who buys the keg of beer.
Similarly, the proud dad buys the alcohol (and maybe cigars) when celebrating the birth of a child. I’ve had two of these parties and, after the stress of (observing) childbirth, both were money well spent. I was happy to tie both of them as closely as possible to the actual births. The first was three hours after my daughter was born; I left the hospital and went directly to the bar. The second was the following day because my son was born a little bit later in the evening; nevertheless, we had a shot to celebrate when he reached 24 hours old – the end of his actual birthday, as it were.
In many ways, the most birthday-like event that Czechs have is the nameday “celebration”, which is actually more of a friendly acknowledgement. If they happen to notice an advertisement at a florist, people say “Happy Name Day” and that is about it. Sometimes you get a small present. Most importantly, you don’t have to buy drinks and sweets.
My nameday is June 11. We don’t have namedays in the United States, so I try to make up for all of the ones that I missed. I pick my favorite dinner – steak, fried onions, potatoes, broccoli, and beer (and popcorn) – and try to be King for the Day. A couple of years ago, I bought a car and my daughter got her first tooth (middle-bottom).
It worked: I felt like King for the Day.