Dutch birthdays can be a complete shock to the uninitiated, but there are few simple rules on how to deal with them.
1. If invited to a Dutch birthday party, do not expect wild dancing until dawn. It usually means sitting in a big circle of chairs, drinking coffee and eating a piece of cake. The wine might come out later. As guests arrive, they shake hands with everyone sitting down. If there is a shortage of chairs, the circle will be expanded. On no account should you attempt to form smaller groups.
2. If it is your birthday at work, you are expected to take in cake for your entire department. Your colleagues will not give you presents. They will all shake your hand or kiss you and have a polite chat. If you are not working, you will be expected to have the neighbours and your partner’s family round for coffee and cake. Don’t forget to put the chairs in a nice ring.
3. If it is your partner or child’s birthday, you must congratulate everyone else in the family. This might sound odd. It goes like this. It is your husband’s birthday. You invite his mother for coffee and cake. She says to you “Congratulations on Fred’s birthday”, you say to her: “Congratulations on your son’s birthday”. You congratulate Fred’s sister on her brother’s birthday and so on. Seriously. You do.
4. If it is your child’s birthday and they are at a Dutch primary school, you will be expected to supply a ‘traktatie’ – an edible gift for every child in the class. Some schools have strict ‘no sugar’ rules which means you have to come up with something clever with cucumber and cheese. Some schools also expect you to provide a piece of cake for all the teachers. Luckily this all stops from the age of 12, when your children will start demanding parties with smuggled beer and Bacardi breezers.
5. If you are turning 50, beware of Abraham. The name of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who reached the ripe old age of 175, is applied to men in the Netherlands when they reach the age of 50. Women are known as Sarah who, according to the Bible, lived until she was 127. Turn 50 at work, and you may find the company lift plastered with posters announcing that ‘Fred is Abraham’. Fiftieth birthday celebrations in the Netherlands often include songs pointing out the birthday boy or girl is old, grey and past it.
Fortunately, the more of us foreigners move in, the more the traditional Dutch birthday is being eroded.