The Brits sure know how to throw a grand party guaranteed to make anyone feel like royalty (see what I did there?) with chambers in Buckingham Palace, and we’re here for it! Scroll all the way through the blog to find out more about birthday celebration traditions in the UK.
Loud ‘hip hip hoorays’, the melodic clapping of hands accompanying various highly freestyled versions of the famous birthday song (You’re lucky if the lot happens to be part of the local choir) courtesy of friends and loved ones. Don’t get me started on the awkward fiddling of hands as an attempt to redirect the embarrassment while waiting for the melody to end. Oh, the joys of waking up on your birthday anticipating all the love, affection, and gifts that come with it.
Of all celebration-fitting dates on the calendar, my birthday is a definite favorite, and no, the presents (if I’m lucky to get any) aren’t necessarily the reason. I find that our lives have become so demanding and filled to the brink with responsibilities that it’s a luxury to take a moment and look at how far one has come. The wins, the lessons, the triumphs against monstrous odds, along with all that makes life beautiful. So, after a brief moment of meditation, we’re ready to get the festivities going. Cake, please!
Birthday Celebration Traditions in the UK: How the British Are Different
While there are similarities in the way birthdays are celebrated around the world, the Brits boast unique traditions that go back for generations. For example, I’m a bit of a modest celebrator that prefers quiet indoor commemorations over parties, but the average Brit is almost always up for a celebration that includes the gathering of friends and family. Traditional Brits believe no man is an island, so it’s no surprise that milestone birthdays are a communal occasion.
We can all agree that being present as we continuously orbit around the sun is a gift in itself, so it’s lowkey mandatory for every birthday to be celebrated, right? However, there are ‘landmarks’ that are considered even more ‘sacred’ as they represent milestones that propel the celebrants into new phases of their lives. From infancy to adulthood, sweet teens to college twenties, and mid-life to pensioner. Remember the note I made about the importance of finding moments to look back at how far one has come? Yup! Milestone birthdays are that (and more). They allow both the celebrant and their loved ones to reminisce on moments long-lived and prompt them to look forward to moments yet to be experienced. Let’s take a look at these.
At the tender age of one, when all that is important is biting into everything that appears squishy and touching just about everything while firming those little feet after months of crawling to get around, your birthday cake and prezzies are all foreign concepts. So, it’s safe to say that the first birthday is really for the proud parents and their desire to create wonderful memories that babies can look back on when they’re old enough. More often than not, most of the guests present are only meeting the little cuties for the first time, so it’s a fitting occasion for them to congratulate the parents and shower the little ones with age-appropriate presents.
To put a one-year-old’s birthday together, parents often choose a cartoon character-inspired theme with the decor and cake to match, and guests are asked to come dressed according to the theme too. Little cake treats are served to younger guests, and the older guests get to enjoy more grown-up delicacies. Depending on the location, there may be little play areas with inflatable castles for the kids to get lost in, and little party packs are given to younger guests at the end.
As with many cultures, the passage into adulthood is pivotal. At 18, the garments (and tantrums) of childhood are left behind as the celebrant is recognized as a full adult both by their loved ones and society at large. At this stage, there are fewer restrictions, college or work, and paying taxes is the new normal, and one can hit the bar without dodging the bouncer. Sweet and sour times, if you ask me!
While some may opt for a themed gathering boasting a champagne fountain with friends and family, the more upbeat form of celebration is pub-crawling, and rite of passage games that include receiving keys and tankards. Some celebrants are fortunate enough to be gifted with their first cars and behold, the life of a college student awaits. Oh, there’s cake and singing too!
What do you get an 18-year-old whose most important mission is to make their own decisions and play defiant, right? Many prefer to offer money and gift cards, so the recipient excitedly practices their independence by choosing their gifts.
Forget the bar-hopping and beer-bingeing that happens during the 18th birthday. The 21st is considered the legitimate ‘coming of age’, and it comes with more elegant celebrations such as a dress-up dinner with friends and family. Turning 21 is a reminder of the legitimacy of your adulthood. The teenage years are well behind you, and a new and hopefully exciting phase is kicking in.
For some, this is when the key-handing ceremony takes place, instead of 18. The celebrant is now fully autonomous and seldom needs to answer to anyone, unless when necessary. Here, one can fall in love without hiding it, and even bring their love interest to dinner with the family.
Gifting isn’t as complicated now because the recipient’s personality is almost fully defined, and their interests are easier to spot. Evenings in or nights on the town? City or country? Spirits or wines? Roses or lilies? 21 is bliss!
Birthdays ending in “0”
Judging by how the people around me reacted to reaching milestones north of the 20s, I legit thought the ‘0’ birthdays was derived from the loud ‘Oh my gosh I’m 30’ frenzies when a celebrant realized that the numbers are finally adding up. However, with society slowly moving away from ‘shunning’ growth, and actually embracing it, ‘0’ birthdays have become a thing of elegance.
There are no ‘set in stone’ birthday celebration traditions in the UK when it comes to these because celebrants often decide to take long vacations to island nations they’ve only ever seen on postcards. When 40 is the number, however, grand celebrations are the order. These could be a surprise party or planned by the celebrants themselves, but the core idea here is YOLO (you only live once). To most, this is where life begins, and with retirement still a horizon away (unless the plan is to ditch formal work early), there’s loads of fun and living to be done.
As the years draw near, the O’s have different numbers next to them. 60, 70, 80, and if you’re lucky, 90. These are major milestones that mostly celebrate life, health, the gift of family, and memories. Instead of the pub noises enjoyed back in the day, and the eagerness to visit new countries and climb Everest, peace and rest are the ultimate goal.
The Bumps: What is it and why is it done?
Bumps are another exciting segment of the traditional birthday celebration and are often reserved for children’s birthdays because as mates grow, they get heavier and harder to lift. While basking in the jubilee, friends or family members hold the celebrant by their legs and turn them upside down. Careful not to drop them, the human pillars gently lift the celebrant and bump their head on the ground. The number of times this is done depends on the birthday being celebrated. If the person is turning 11, then expect 11 bumps, and an extra one for extra luck!
Over the years, bumping has been practiced less because of safety concerns, but when done right, the celebrant is up for a pretty interesting view of their guests and tons of giggles.
Birthday Celebration Traditions in the UK: favorite cakes
The carrot cake – Having gained prominence out of necessity when pre-WWII Brits were forced to excise some portion control with ingredients, and possibly add new items to the list, the carrot cake has climbed up the ranks to become one of Britain’s favorites. Of course, there have been twists and revamps to the classic carrot cake, a favorite being the cream cheese frosting, but the carrot cake still reigns supreme without the bells and whistles.
Victorian sponge cakes are as traditional and heritage-backed as can be. This dessert was named after Queen Victoria herself and it is said that any self-respecting cake lover in Britain is bound to place this spongy delicacy at the top of any cake list. Often referred to as the Victorian sandwich and enjoyed at any time of the day, especially tea time, the Victorian sponge is a personal favorite.
Lemon drizzle was named the UK’s favorite cake back in 2018, and your taste buds can tell you why. Whether enjoyed at a birthday celebration or on a ‘self-care’ day, the lemon drizzle is sure to drive you up the walls with joy. 40% of the 2000 people that took place in the poll agree, I do too!
Cheesecake – Not a surprising addition to this sweet list. Cheesecake is the baker’s favorite child and is often paraded at different pastry stands, and within reason. Whether you lean more towards the Italian or enjoy German and French versions – not forgetting the New York-style cheesecake, you’ve got good taste, and I love that for you! On average, Brits have at least 3 slices of cake, and you can be sure that cheesecake makes the cut.
Chocolate cake – Did someone say death by chocolate? I bet you did! Anyone with a sweet tooth will tell you that nothing stirs their emotions and makes them feel like everything is going to be okay like chocolate cake does. 41 % of Brits on another food and beverage poll feel the exact same way. Birthday or Monday, the Brits are having slices of chocolate cake, and so am I!
Birthday celebrations are amazing, especially when in the company of friends, family, your favorite Cakes Overseas goodies, and cakes on cakes on cakes. There are so many more elements of British birthday traditions to discover, but I’m sure the above gave you a clear picture of what your bash may look like when celebrated in Britain.
Celebrating your birthday soon, or know someone who is? Well, happy birthday in advance, mate!
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Nolly is a digital head that’s spun by amazing content, and she does a little happy dance when brands get it right. She has six solid years of creative digital account management and writing experience, and can say hi in at least 14 languages. Careful not to ask her to tell you a story though because once she starts, it’s difficult to stop!