Birthdays Italian-Style: Celebrating Your Birthday in Italy

* This post was originally schedule for Friday, October 24. Due to site issues Thursday-Friday, it has been reposted here today. Thank you for your patience and enjoy!

Imagine this. It is your (insert young age here) birthday and you live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. (I’m talking about Italy here.)

Life is good. In fact, life is bella.

Your options are endless.

Do you throw a party?

Go out for pizza and ice cream? (Yes, they do this here even after they turn 10.)

Do you enjoy a romantic dinner on the beach with your honey?

Well … it depends.

On your bank account.

Yep. You heard me right. In Italy the birthday girl (or boy) treats her friends to dinner and drinks. Seriously. To help ease the pain of this increasingly expensive habit, most party-goers usually bring a gift. And at home-based parties they always stay until the cake has been served. Isn’t that nice?

This is one of the hardest habits for me to grasp. As an American, I like to be treated like a queen on my birthday. I expect will happily accept flowers, gifts, wine or all of the above. And I don’t want to pay!

I can’t imagine where this tradition stemmed from, but in my quick Google search for answers, I stumbled upon an assessment made by a fellow American expat in Milan. And she was as confused as me.

The same thing goes for lunch and dinner invites.

Americans think nothing of calling up a friend, checking out their plans and asking if they want to meet up for lunch or dinner.

*Note to the wise: Don’t do that in Italy.

In Italy when you invite someone to meet for lunch or dinner, you are offering to BUY THEM lunch or dinner.

This concept was confirmed to me a few months ago when I went to the beach with an Italian pal. We passed a new’ish restaurant and I commented on how cute it was.

“It is good.” She told me.

“Ah, you’ve been?” I asked.

“Yes. I was invited.”

Me, confused … because remember this whole conversation is going down in Italian …

“Oh, I see. You were invited but you couldn’t go?” I ask.

“No. I was invited.”

I’m stumped, but I push through for results.

“You ate there?” Simple enough, right?

“Yes. But I don’t know how much it costs, because I was invited.”

Alrighty, then.

Now I get it. She didn’t pay! She was invited.

Speaking of gals with recent birthdays, check out Michelle’s addition to the La Buona Cucina Americana recipe list. It is homemade apple pie-just like her mom used to make! And if she wants to meet up for a post-birthday lunch celebration, I’ll pay. I promise.

What do you make of this wacky Italian birthday tradition? Have you ever heard of this as the norm in other parts of the world? Have any of you in Italy been surprised when you were expected to pay for a lunch or dinner date? What happened?

14 Responses
  1. my husband always “has” to bring croissants to his office on his birthday. I find that funny!
    That is funny. When I worked in an office in the states, everyone else would pitch it and bring breakfast for the birthday person. I love that things are different. It keeps us learning, right?

  2. Really? when I lived in Italy I never noticed that tradition… and I’ve been to several birthdays dinners. Everyone always insists on paying for the birthday person in my experience. I have yet to see a birthday girl or boy pay for their own meal, let alone the meals of their friends.
    Maybe Umbrians and Tuscans are just different? 😉

    I’m like you, I like to be treated like a queen. – I think if I lived where I knew people had the tradition of the birthday girl paying, I’d just have a party at home. 😉

    Yeah you gotta be careful with dinner invitations. When I want to ask a friend to come to lunch or dinner with me, I’ve always added, “I know a great place that both of us can afford” and that seems to take care of things.
    It may be that Umbrians or Tuscans are different, but I know Sara in Milan has had similiar experiences so I don’t think it is limited to the south. You were there in college, right? Maybe Italians in college are just like they are in the states – BROKE! 🙂 Or maybe these friends insisted on “taking out” the birthday person and thus, he/she was “invited.” I don’t really know. I should really stop trying to understand! 🙂

  3. I try not to go out in the village on my birthday lest I go broke 😉

    My only experience with the “assumption of pay” was when an English gentleman “invited” P and me to dinner, and then when P expected the chap to pay it was a bit awkward between us more than with the gentleman; I had to explain to P that the (southern?) Italian system was *very* different than what we English speakers are used to 😉
    Ha. Funny. Is that why you closed your doors and pulled the curtains this year? 😉

  4. Interesting about being “invited” to lunch. ha My Italian friends do pick up the tab when they invite me to dinner. But I don’t think it’s expected. Sometimes I pay.
    Now regarding birthdays that is a different story. The majority of my friends in the States pay when they invited people to a birthday dinner. Simple fact not everyone can afford to shell out $150 (esp if they only had an entree and one drink!) and a gift. I think it’s classy. This could be an age thing. I noticed more and more friends started doing this as we got older. Also if you have a group of friends who do different things for a living, it solves the awkwardness that comes with splitting the check. However, you can’t say no to celebrating a friend’s birthday, right? It’s an uncomfortable situation.
    I couldn’t afford to pay for everyone’s dinner so I would instead invite my friends to birthday drinks. Not all my friend were studio execs who could write off dinner and drinks. That way if one of my broke writer friends could not afford to have a cocktail at Chateau Marmont, they didn’t have to.
    Of course I love presents and some friends would insist on taking me to dinner or lunch. However, if I decide on my birthday to have a dinner I will pay for it or having a brunch/lunch at someone’s home. To me the most important thing is to be with my friends on my day.
    I think you said it perfectly, “If I decide to have a dinner…” Maybe that is where some of us see it differently. I agree if you want to have a party and you ask your friends to go out and celebrate with you that it isn’t that “unimaginable” that you might pay for it. I’ve never really called my friends and invited them out for my birthday. In the states, my friends used to ask me what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. Sometimes I’d pay for my own, especially if it was a pricier place, but every instance I can remember they initiated the get-together. I agree it is important to have your friends around you on your birthday and that’s also why I tend to like “at home” parties. Relaxed and fun!

  5. A belated happy birthday I think.
    Oh, no no! My bd is in Jan (Inauguration Day!). I’ve just been thinking of birthdays because on my nephew’s and Michelle’s, I guess. I’ve also been wanting to post about the “invitation” to lunch/dinner. It is so foreign for us Americans.

  6. Carla

    A couple years ago I shelled out about 500€ just to celebrate my birthday dinner with close friends and family…never again! Now I end it at offering them a gelato e basta! It’s fun to celebrate your birthday but it stinks you have to pay because if you can’t afford it or if your friends aren’t chipping in, you might not be able to celebrate the way you want to. Whenever I would tell the Italians about the American tradition to celebrate they loved it (but yet I still paid, so I guess I wasn’t convincing enough!)
    ha. That is funny that you don’t think you are convincing. I remember you telling this story before. €500 is *so* much money. Wow. That is crazy!

  7. Well, my first experience with the birthday person paying was when I was working Slovenia, and I thought it was a uniquely Slovenian thing, and then I went on to work in Austria in the Tyrol and it was the same there and here in the north in the alps it’s the same. Sure there may be some flexibility with your friends but my experience has been if it’s your birthday and you invite people to celebrate with you, you’re paying. It’s a hard one to adjust to, so I just scale back my expectations as well. The lavish gift giving seems to fit in more with our American spendthrift mentality than this part of Europe it seems. Still hard to change what one grew up with though.
    Well dang. Maybe us Americans are just cheap… who knew?? lol Maybe this is similiar to when we were young in America and our parents would host a birthday party for us. They paid for the food, the friends brought gifts???

  8. When my friends all go out and it’s someone’s birthday the check is split between everyone minus the birthday person. Yes, some pay more then what they ordered and others pay less but it seems when people put money in for the food and drink they always short change it. They forgot their soda or didn’t add in any for tip. This always would leave the person acting as ‘banker’ in an uncomfortable situation. It’s just simpler to split evenly.

    Now this tradition about the person paying who invites others to lunch, wow, I think I’m in cultural shock. Friendships are made and nourished at casual lunches and dinners; I can see how people wouldn’t step out of their comfort zone and get to know others when the invitee is expected to pay. With budgets and economy as they are this would severely limit these social interactions. I hear a lot of people meet for coffee, maybe this is an inexpensive way of building friendships.

    Could this be one factor as to why making Italian friends can be so difficult, taking out a key social activity? I would be severely limited if I had to pay when inviting friends to lunch.

    Great post Cherrye, very informative.
    Thanks. I think you could be right on with this being one of the reasons people don’t go out to lunch with friends more often. Could you imagine if you had to pay every time you went out with friends for lunch? Also you are right about the coffee. It only cost €1, so everyone rushes to pay. We’ve even had our priest pay for our coffee when we saw him in the bar!

    Also interesting note about splitting the check. That is something they do here that we never did in Texas, but I am curious about how others did that back home.

  9. Hola again! To answer your question, I went back to school in Italy, but none of my friends were in college – all professionals. But I think you’re right, it could be that the people insisted on taking them out. Or these folks just happen to have very kind friends 🙂
    No doubt. Maybe you should share your friends with the rest of us! lol

  10. My husband told me when I first met him that Italians didn’t really celebrate birthdays – that their saint day was more important. But maybe it is because he comes from an older generation of Italians?
    I’m not sure. I do know many Italians who seem to celebrate their Saint Day with the same amount of hoopla as birthdays. Double the fun, I guess!

  11. J.Doe

    It’s not just limited to birthdays, but all personal parties. It was also strange to me when my husband had to buy everything (food, plates, cups….) for his own going away party at his job.
    That is strange. He had to buy the cups?? ha. When I first moved here I felt bad b/c my father in law bought pastries on his own birthday. Little did I know then that it was the norm!

  12. It’s the same in spain. In germany partly, depends on whether you throw the party/dinner or if your friends organize it for you.
    Interesting. Maybe Americans are the ones who do it differently? Although I do think that “who” wants to have the party is a big factor.

  13. Ruth

    I am American, but living in Germany, and I was raised that when you invite someone to dinner, etc., you are implying that you are paying. I think it may just be the American Generation Y and after that thinks they are only paying for their own meal. Prior to those generations, paying just for your own was called, “going Dutch” and you had to specify if that was you’re intention.
    Interesting. I think so much of this really has to do with the way you invite someone to lunch. If you say, “I’m celebrating XYZ, I’d like you to come,” I think it sounds more like you’d pay. If you say, “How ’bout we get together for lunch one day next week” … not so much.

  14. amelie

    Stumbled on this interesting piece. It’s such a late reply but I figured this topic is not time-bound so here goes.

    I, too, was shocked, although conversely so, upon arriving in the US. In my homeland (Philippines), the custom is also to spend for friends when celebrating one’s birthday – it is colloquially known as “blowout”. In fact, a popular Filipino birthday jingle is roughly translated as follows:
    Happy, happy, happy birthday,
    The drinks and food are on you
    Happy, happy, happy birthday
    We hope we end up stuffed!

    Consequently, if you’re low on resources, you generally don’t remind people that your birthday is coming up! Although, one good thing about this tradition is that because you don’t want to ever grow hungry, you (consciously or unconsciously) build a mental calendar of friends’ and relatives’ birthdays, and so you pretty much remember everyone’s birthday. But now I guess there is Facebook’s birthday calendar, haha.

    @Ice Tea’s comment above: If we take the practice of footing the bill in a more cultural context, we can tell an alternate story. To wit, a lot of cultures with this custom (mine included) also have a strong sense of, hmmm the closest translation that comes to mind is “social debt”.

    Hence, another way of looking at the social-networking aspect of this, is that if one does get invited and treated to a lunch or whatever meal, he or she is strongly compelled to return the favor, thus ensuring a repeat meeting with the acquaintance. But this doesn’t make everything “even”, rather, it now invokes the feeling of social debt in the other person. This entire tradition of “indebtedness-that-cannot-be-repaid” can hence serve as an avenue for building familiarity and camaraderie, and ultimately friendships.

    Just my take, hope it makes sense 🙂

    Hi there! I am so glad you left a comment and I’m happy to know how things work in your culture. I *love* your birthday jingle, btw. Thanks for sharing. I agree with you thoughts on social debt. It does seem like everyone feels they “owe” someone something, it is just hard for me to grasp sometimes.

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