Gefeliciteerd! Celebrating a Birthday in Holland

In February I celebrated my birthday here in Holland. My friends made 32 one of my favorite birthdays ever by throwing me a surprise party.

This was my second birthday that I’ve celebrated here, and in the years that I’ve been here I’ve been involved in many others. Like any culture, the Dutch have their own customs around how to celebrate someone’s birthday. One in particular that I find bizarre is ‘gefeliciteerd’. The word itself translates to ‘congratulations’ and it is the appropriate greeting to the birthday person. That is not the bizarre part. While I grew up hearing ‘Happy Birthday’ and not ‘congratulations’, they really are not that different, are they? The Italians do the same thing, often choosing the quick and easy ‘auguri’ or best wishes, instead of the longer ‘buon compleanno’, happy birthday.

So no, it is not the word itself that I find strange about the Dutch birthday celebration, but the fact that it is said not only to the birthday person, but also to all of their family and friends. No one had explained this to me prior to the first time I went to a friend’s birthday party. When I walked in I started the usual round of introductions, sealed with 3 kisses. Yes, three. And that is per person you introduce yourself or say hello to. For this reason, it really pays to arrive early to these sorts of functions.

When people started congratulating me during my ‘hello tour’ around the room, I was confused. I wasn’t sure what I had done that was worthy of their praise, and since I didn’t know the custom, I certainly didn’t congratulate them back; I humbly accepted their congratulations with a tentative ‘thank you’. After five or six of these awkward encounters, someone finally completed the phrase, saying “congratulations with your friend”. That’s when it clicked. No one was congratulating me on anything that I had done. They were congratulating me for my friend’s birthday. Embarrassed for all of my “thank yous”, I quickly switched my reply to “congratulations to you too!”

The dutchies went easy on me. I was a foreigner, after all, and they realize that their birthday custom is a unique one. But now I know that in Holland if there is a birthday within your social circle you should be prepared to accept praise as if you’ve just won a major award; and extend that praise right back and with just as much enthusiasm.

A couple other particularly Dutch birthday customs to be aware of if you’re ever here…

1. It is completely acceptable, and in fact quite welcome, to give cash to your friends on their birthdays. You will even see a group of friends stuff a birthday card with a mix of 5s and 10s and call it good. If you receive a birthday party invitation, notice the small print at the bottom where it is customary to give invitees gift ideas. You will often see “envelope”, which means “don’t think, just hand over the cash”.

2. If you work on your birthday you will be expected to “trakteer”, or “treat”. It means bring cake. Or pie. Or cookies. Bake it yourself or pick it up at the store on your way in. No one really cares where it comes from, but this is taken fairly seriously so hand over the sweets or become the office outcast. It is a tradition that appeals to two of a Dutch person’s favorite things: getting something for free and acting like a child. The Dutch are generally proud of their frugality, but anyone who takes issue with my second point here will kindly be referred to the Dutch norms of eating chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, pancakes for dinner, or flocking to an adult dressed as a jester for a handful of tiny cookies. I am talking about Zwarte Piet, of course, but that is another post entirely…

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