For the buitenlanders among us the Dutch birthday party can be excruciatingly painful, tedious or downright baffling. Often all three. Once experienced it’s hard to get over. But let’s start at the beginning. Here’s what happens.
As with any party preparation anywhere in the world, planning for a Dutch begins in advance with a shopping list that looks like this:
The host may (or may not) order a cake at the local bakers. However, the day itself is when the work really begins.
First things first. All chairs within the confines of the host’s house, and any that can be pilfered from friends, neighbours and nearby relatives, need to be meticulously arranged in a circle in the woonkamer. Space is limited in 99% of birthday party cases so the chairs need to be squeezed close together so that everyone has a chair but so that guests are not physically sitting on each other. The result is that the party-goers have to scramble over each other to get in and out of the circle. I have no idea if there is a special birthday party ruler that exists for this purpose or if Dutch people just feel by instinct when the seating is the right level of gezelligheid.
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. A lot of coffee is needed for a Dutch birthday party so it’s best to start brewing a few hours before the first guests arrive.
5. Pucker Up
Tardiness on such an occasion will not go unnoticed because as you arrive you give the birthday boy or girl three kisses on the cheek and utter ‘Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag’. It is impossible to sneak in quietly. You must then parade around the room kissing other guests in the circle that you know. A polite nod of the head and a handshake is sufficient for unfamiliar faces. If you are not related to the jarige Job you may then take your place in the circle – which in itself is no mean feat (see step 2).
Birthday gifts are ceremoniously given a public opening. Again, there is more circle scrambling with the exchange of more kisses, this time given as a thank you. All this happens just as you have managed to crawl over various distant relatives back to your seat on the far side of the circle.
It is now that the ‘once small dry crackers but now small soggy crackers because filet americain was spread on them an hour ago’ make their appearance. You are obliged to take one. And eat it. Smile and wave your hand about your ear to indicate that the cracker is lekker.
8. Distribute the Cake
If you are lucky the cake is now brought in to the room to choruses of “Lang zal ze leven” which is the Dutch equivalent of the Happy Birthday song. Lots of circle clambering and awkward passing of plates ensues.
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 – now if the time to leave if you find yourself at such a party as you know it will NOT get better).
9. Chat Amongst Yourselves
You are required to talk to people in and around the circle, but without leaving your chair. It’s an introvert’s nightmare. It’s living hell for expats still learning the local language.
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 if you actually speak Dutch – too horrifying for words if you don’t.
If you are a Dutch birthday party virgin subject to tipsy Dutch strangers screaming from their chair on the other side of the room it can be traumatic.
You have been warned.