After celebrating many a birthday abroad, I have come to realise that celebrations in a foreign land often tend to be a crash course in cultural discovery. If you are lucky enough to spend some time in the Lowlands, you will quickly find out that the Dutch celebrate birthdays in a series of weird and wacky ways!
The Dutch birthday calendar
Everyone’s got one, so how are you expected to keep all those birthdays straight? The always innovative Dutch have a very simple invention for that: enter the omnipresent birthday calendar. Now this calendar isn’t exactly what you have in mind. Firstly, it resides in a very unusual place, a place often referred to as the smallest room in the house. Yes, my friends, the Dutch birthday calendar is proudly hung in the toilet! The Dutch are above all practical, so where else would such an item be sure to not go overlooked – the toilet of course.
This calendar is also not your everyday agenda of sorts. You are not to fill it up with your next dentist appointment or that upcoming dinner date at your colleague’s house; its sole purpose is to accurately record birthdays. In fact, it’s a perpetual calendar (without date or year) forsaking the pesky need to purchase or re-update one every year. Trust the Dutch to come up with an efficient and thrifty solution!
Congratulations to EVERYONE
If you happen to attend a Dutch birthday party, be sure you are well prepared. You will be expected to congratulate the birthday boy/girl and then go round the entire room and congratulate everyone else! The whole affair is rather jolly though quite time consuming. A typical Dutch birthday party is accompanied by a continual hum of throaty gefeliciteerds, so if you are new to the language, I’d suggest you practice your pronunciation a few times before entrance, as chances are you are going to need to say it over and over and over again.
Once your big day rolls around, there is one particular cultural quirk you will need to observe: the bringing of one’s own cake! Do not assume someone has brought you cake on your special day. More importantly, do not think you can quietly avoid this tradition at work. You will certainly not make any new friends or impress your colleagues by attempting to usurp this ever important socio-cultural norm. Bring your cake, take in all the gefeliciteerds, do a lot of smoochy air kisses and enjoy yourself, Dutch-style!
The Big 5-0
By the time I reach my 50th birthday I plan to be either back in Canada or happily retired on a tropical island somewhere (one can always dream, right?) but spending the big day in the Netherlands would be a close second. Of all the unusual traditions, that of the Dutch 50th birthday seems to be the most odd! When a Dutch man or woman turn fifty they are said to be either “seeing Abraham” or “seeing Sara” – a biblical reference who’s original meaning is still up for debate. The birthday celebrations once included either a cake or pastry in the likeness of the birthday boy/girl and evolved over time into a life-size doll made to resemble the guest of honour! This tradition has lost some steam in the past few years, but don’t be surprised if you still see a 5 meter tall blow-up balloon of a greying woman (aka Sara) in your neighbour’s yard!