Expat Magazine

Birthdays in the Netherlands: Friendly Ring Or Circle of Death?

By Clogsandtulips @clogsandtulips
Birthdays in the Netherlands: Friendly ring or circle of death?
My taking the day off wasn't so much so that I could relax and take some time for myself. I had other things to do...
Unlike in the US where you have your party at a restaurant or rent a room or have it catered, in the Netherlands, you're responsible for supplying the goods for your own party. Allow me to explain:
I didn't have a party yesterday, but that doesn't mean I was off the hook. It is custom to bring some sort of cake or other sweet dessert to share with your colleagues or classmates on your birthday.
At the moment, I don't have a job with colleagues, but I do have a business where I teach children and I do belong to a singing group that rehearses on Mondays. So I spent most of the day yesterday baking cookies.
Now, for those worrying that I won't properly celebrate my special day with a party, never fear. That's coming this weekend. And what does "that" entail?
Well, normally, the ever scrimping and saving Dutch like to just throw one party and be done with it. Which means that, in addition to the birthday boy or girl's mates from university and close friends and colleagues, you also have Great Uncle Jan, the parents, Grandma and Grandpa, the in-laws, and perhaps a few parents who's little darlings keep Junior company at daycare.
Each person, as they come in, greets the other guests with a "Gefeliciteerd" or congratulations, starting with the birthday boy/girl and working their way around. This is usually accompanied by three kisses for those you know well and a firm handshake for those you don't.
Then you proceed to sit in a circle and awkwardly talk (or not talk) to the other party-goers while the birthday boy/girl - ironically the one everyone came to see - runs around getting everyone drinks and snacks and pieces of cake.
No candles adorn the cake, no birthday songs are sung (unless the birthday girl/boy is 12 and under), and presents are opened the second you hand them over.
As new people come to celebrate, the whole kissing/hand-shaking/gefeliciteerd charade takes place all over again as you shove over to create space for more chairs to be added to the circle. Once everyone's settled, the awkward conversations begin again.
I have been to parties like this. They are known by expats all over the Netherlands as The Circle of Death.
These can be particularly disturbing for expats because the older generations typically don't speak English and would rather avoid conversation with you than worry about translations. Even if you do speak Dutch, it can be hard to jump into the chat. Mostly because there isn't much of one. Add the fear of saying something incorrect or downright silly in front of a group of strangers and it's sometimes easier just to play the mute.
On the other side of the coin, you may end up finding yourself the main attraction as the exotic foreigner, drawing more attention to you than you ever wanted. In short, it's a no-win situation for expats.
However, what I have noticed is that this scenerio occurs most often at parties for kids or adults with kids. I'm sure it's different in each area and for each person, so feel free to negate me on this one. But of all the parties I've been to, I've only encountered the highly uncomfortable Circle of Death at these sorts of parties.
The birthday parties I've been to for younger, childless people have been pretty awesome. Yes, the birthday boy/girl is more of a host or servant than the center of the celebration, but there's more of a help yourself feel.
Snacks and drinks, plates, utensils and glasses are set out for the taking so the host only has to invite you to the table and occasionally pop around to make sure your plate and glass stay full.
Though guests tend to naturally gravitate into a circle formation, age and interests are much more of a common ground. And the presence of alcohol as the main beverage sure does help stimulate conversation in a way that juice, coffee and tea just don't.
The circles created at this type of party are not circles of death at all. In fact, they make you (or at least me at any rate) see the underlying practicality in the circle formation. You can see and hear and connect with everyone at the party and no one feels excluded. Everyone can sit and be comfortable - which is certainly a plus. Even at parties attended only by expats and internationals, the circle formation rules.
Or maybe I've been brainwashed in an attempt for the Dutch to pull me over to the dark side. Sure gives you something to think about, huh?
Have you experienced the Circle of Death? Can you tell us about a surprisingly pleasant birthday experience in the Netherlands? How do you celebrate birthdays in your home country? Please share with us in a comment.

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