Chinese Birthday Customs

While we are diligent about sending well-wishes on a friend’s birthday, the Chinese typically reserve birthday celebrations for children and the elderly. Although Western influence has changed some of that cultural perspective, Chinese birthday parties still have special traditions.

Here in the States, a child turns 1 on the first anniversary of their birth. In Chinese culture, babies are 1 year old when they are born. Some celebrate the child’s first birthday party when the baby actually turns two. Others consider the first day of the Chinese New Year (lunar calendar) as the starting point of a new age. This means that if a child is 1 year old when he is born and then one more year is added as soon as he enters the New Year, it’s possible that a child could be two years old when, according to Western tradition, he might be two or three weeks old. This happens when a baby is born on the last week or day of the past year.

If you don’t want to ask an elderly person their age, you can ask for their Chinese zodiac sign. Knowing a person’s sign could make it possible to figure out their age. When someone turns 60 or 80, this warrants a full-scale celebration with a gathering of family and friends. Chinese birthdays must be celebrated before or on the actual birth date. Belatedly celebrating a Chinese birthday is considered impolite and disrespectful.

Birthday cakes are becoming a common part of a birthday celebration. Traditionally the birthday person is required to slurp a longevity noodle in one continuous strand. This long noodle symbolizes a long life. Although many Chinese now opt to give a gift, red envelopes filled with money are typically the preferred birthday present.

Finally, a song is always sung to the one celebrating their birthday. Here are the Chinese characters to the Happy Birthday song (yes, it’s the same melody as the Western version): 祝你生日快樂. Here is the pronunciation guide: zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè. And, if that isn’t enough, here it is being sung for you:

Greetings to all, birthday or not.