Surviving birthdays

Birthdays in the Netherlands are a big deal, and there are some typical traditions that accompany the celebrations.


Have you ever been to a Dutch person’s home and visited the WC only to find a birthday calendar hanging there? In order not to risk forgetting a loved one’s special day, there’s a reminder every time nature calls. Designed to be used year after year, with just the month and date, its very existence demonstrates the importance of the event.


It may be your birthday, but you will be expected to treat colleagues at work, and kids will need to treat the teachers and other pupils in some way at school. Cakes or chocolates will suffice. You will foot the bill, and are unlikely to be the recipient of gifts in either situation.

The party

Don’t think you can get away with not hosting a party, or be prepared to be considered anti-social if you do attempt to ignore the occasion. Dutch birthday parties are typically an open house with several generations of family, friends and neighbours present. As such, it won’t be a wild affair. Gifts will be presented and opened immediately – flowers, chocolate, wine or even cash will suffice.


There’ll be no slipping in to sit quietly and enjoy proceedings. You will be expected to make your way around the room to shake hands with everyone, three cheek kisses are necessary for guests that you know well. Be sure to congratulate members of the family, and close friends, on the guest of honour becoming a year older. For example, it’s your girlfriend’s birthday so you would greet her mother like this: “Congratulations with your daughter!” She will reply: “Congratulations with your partner!” and so on. Regionally things vary; best practice seems to be to observe before acting. In other cultures the word ‘congratulations’ is often reserved for weddings, births and christenings but certainly not here.

You will be invited to take a seat in the circle. This makes mingling almost impossible

Food and drink

Once you’re seated you’ll be offered a beverage: coffee or tea. Cake is served after a majority of guests have arrived. After another round of coffee and tea, the savoury snacks will come out, such as sausage and cheese. Only at this point is it acceptable to ask for a wine or beer. Your invitation will likely have stated a start and finish time for the festivities, which should indicate whether you can expect to be fed a meal or not.

Sarah and Abraham

Embarrassing photos and posters plastered around the neighbourhood, and life-sized dolls of greying men and women displayed in front of homes can only mean one thing: one of the residents is turning 50. The idea is that at the grand age of 50 you’ve acquired the maturity and wisdom of the biblical figures of Sarah and Abraham who are believed to have lived until 127 and 175 respectively. Cards and decorations depicting the pair are widely available for celebrating this particular milestone, referred to as ‘seeing’ Sarah or Abraham. The circle In order to achieve maximum gezelligheid, chairs will often be arranged in a circle in the living room. Having congratulated everybody, you will be invited to take a seat in the circle. This makes mingling almost impossible, so choose your chair strategically because you’ll be stuck there for a while making small talk with your neighbours.

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