It was recently my birthday, and while the celebrations are similar in Spain to what they are back home, there are some differences. And, although you may make a lot of friends with other foreigners while you are abroad, in the case that you end up making Spanish friends, there are some things you should know about how they celebrate los cumpleaños in Spain:
Celebrating your birthday
They party a lot here, so the party isn’t always the important thing: You might find yourself frustrated that organising a party is more difficult than you expected because all your friends have a million things to do. Don’t take it personally, however, just keep in mind that your special day is what you make of it! So accept the fact that some people won’t be able to come, but that doesn’t mean you cannot celebrate in other ways on other days. Also, consider having coffee and cake in addition to a party in order to offer you more time with your friends!
My personal advice: Invite everyone you want to come and be okay with people not being able to. If you really want to see everyone, go out of your way to try and find ways to meet that don’t require everyone to be together at once.
They will sing to you: Despite that fact that one or two people will probably bail on the party, you should still expect a good turn out (Spaniards do love to celebrate). This means that you will probably have a surplus of shots and/or other alcoholic celebrations in addition to a loud singing of the Spanish version of Happy Birthday. If you are shy, make sure to prepare for this as celebration is important to Spaniards and everyone around you will probably join in.
The song is very simple and goes like this:
You are expected to pay for your guests: This is probably the biggest shocker for Americans, who are more likely used to not paying anything on their special day. Here in Spain, you are expect to ‘invite’ (invitar) or pay for your guests who come and hang out with you. Now, this may seem weird—and very expensive—but it is the tradition here and they take it very seriously. However, I have been known to not follow tradition both by paying for other people on their birthday or not paying for people on mine, so don’t worry if you cannot or do not want to follow this tradition.
Pro-Tip: If you are on a budget or just don’t want to blow hundreds of dollars in a night, let your friends know that you will pay for coffee and cake, or one round of drinks, or perhaps one cocktail per person, but that the rest is up to each individual. While this is really not Spanish, most people will understand.
You will probably get presents and/or cards in return: Like in the U.S., in Spain there is a tradition of giving presents and/or cards to the birthday girl or boy. Here, I have found the difference to be more of a personal one. Some people like to receive gifts, whereas others consider your presence to be a present (especially if you are happy paying for your own drinks). So, consider what is most important for you on your special day and make sure you communicate it to your guests.
For example: I prefer not to get gifts or only get one gift from everyone (5 euros per person towards a nice gift is so much better than a 5 euro gift individually). If I am with people who I know will not buy me anything when I ask them to, I am happy with no extra presents. However, if I think they will get me stuff anyway, I will suggest a group gift or just a nice card.
Celebrating a friend’s birthdays
Family is really important to Spaniards: This means that if they are from out-of-town, they will probably head home for their birthdays to have lunch with their extended families and friends from ‘home.’ If they are from the city where you are, they will still probably have a family lunch. Both of these things can complicate celebrating friends’ birthdays, but it is important to understand that this is normal here.
Pro-tip: If you are trying to help a friend host a party, remember that your guest of honor might not want to celebrate on his or her special day, but may move it around depending on their family needs.
You will be expected to sing: Like almost everywhere, people want to make it known that it is someone’s birthday, so be prepared to belt out a round or two of cumpleaños feliz. Check out the video if you’ve never heard the song and get ready to sing along!
They are expected to pay: But be aware that everyone is in different situations and it might not be the best moment for you to be asking your friend(s) to ‘invite’ you for everything. Don’t be embarrassed to suss out the situation before the day-of and make sure to ask them ahead of time to see what their thoughts are on the situation before planning your evening accordingly (whether than means drinking less or offering to pay more).
Pro-tip: Never enter the party with the expectation of a free bar. Be considerate of your friend’s economic and personal ability to pay for you. My rule of thumb is to both accept and pay for one drink (making it even and more reasonable for the birthday boy or girl).
You should give presents and/or card: Unless stated otherwise, presents and/or cards are normal at birthdays. Like I said before, consider getting together with other friends and making the most of your buying power.
Have you ever celebrated your birthday away from home? What was the most surprising thing to you?