The annual birthday celebration in Holland is the subject of many an expat forum. For the buitenlanders among us the Dutch birthday party can be excruciatingly painful, tedious or downright baffling.
As with any party preparation, planning begins at least a few days in advance with a shopping list and ordering of a cake at the local bakers (usually the task of the host himself). However, the day itself is when the work really begins.
First things first. All chairs within the confines of the host’s house, and those pilfered from friends, neighbours and nearby relatives, need to be meticulously arranged in a circle in the woonkamer. The circle of chairs should be close enough together so that guests have to scramble over each other to get in and out.
Secondly, the living room needs to be cleaned from top to toe; this is after all the showcase for the rest of the house. Believe me, upstairs is not as clean, tidy and orderly as the room the birthday gathering is hosted in.
The next task on the to-do list is to brew gallons of coffee ready for the entrance of the guests. Tardiness at such an occasion will not go unnoticed because as you arrive you give the birthday boy or girl three kisses on the cheeks and utter ‘Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag’. You will then parade around the room kissing those in the circle that you actually know. A polite nod of the head and a handshake is sufficient for unfamiliar faces. You may then take your place in the circle.
However, if it is a family member’s birthday then each guest will also kiss you and congratulate you on the birthday of your mother-in-law/father-in-law/husband/son etc. Hence, your place in the circle is of the utmost strategic importance if you do not want to be clambering over your neighbour every time someone enters the party.
Birthday gifts are ceremoniously given a public opening. Again, there is more scrambling with the exchange of more kisses, this time as a thank you. Moreover, all this just as you have managed to crawl over various distant relatives back to your seat on the far side of the circle.
In comes the cake, brought in to choruses of “Lang zal ze leven”, the Dutch equivalent of Happy Birthday. Only once the cake is devoured may the alcohol flow (and I have heard about Dutch birthday parties that have failed to move to this latter stage of celebration, and to the expat’s horror, coffee and Spa are the only beverages making a post cake appearance). The more alcohol served obviously the rowdier the birthday circle becomes. It pinnacles with guests (still attached to their chairs in the circle) shouting across the circle to try to communicate with each other. Terrifying to say the least and that is if you actually speak Dutch. If you are a Dutch birthday party virgin, and are subject to tipsy, Dutch strangers screaming from their chair on the other side of the room it can be traumatic. You have been warned.