Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dutch Birthday Party

This is a description of the traditional Dutch birthday party - and, really, almost any other gathering of the Dutch - from my experience.


(The picture is from Familiedag 2006, but notice how everyone is sitting in a circle.)

The traditional Dutch birthday party is done in the round - like knitting a sock? First, I feel like I must set the scene by saying that a lot of Dutch living rooms, especially the ones we visit in Haarlem, are sort of long and thin. And everyone sits along the perimeter of the room on couches and chairs politely talking to the people on either side and possibly the people across if the room is thin enough.

When new people come in (and we are inevitably late arrivals), they walk up to the birthday person and say, "Gefeliciteerd!" (It means Congratulations!) If it's a man (and you're a man) you shake hands. If it's a woman you kiss three times (alternating cheeks). Women also kiss each other three times and gay men (and the rare straight man) also kiss three times. The social constructs of the kiss-greeting are just how you would imagine it might be. I feel like I might have messed that up.

Then you proceed around the room usually beginning with the birthday person's partner and family (if possible) and greet everyone in the room appropriately while saying, "Gefeliciteerd." It's strange, but it's true. What doesn't make sense, of course, is congratulating someone for having a birthday. But the clinker in the whole situation is congratulating the neighbor from next door (who probably had very little to do with it) for the birthday person having a birthday. I shrug. Just do it. Everyone sees you coming and stops to talking long enough to shakes hands, saying their name if you don't know them. (Or they don't remember having met me.)

Then you take a seat in the circle. Usually someone will come and offer cake and coffee. And both are sometimes served with tiny little forks and spoons. I don't mind the spoons so much. Even Fred and I have miniature spoons for coffee. But I really don't like tiny forks. It feels silly to me, like I'm using a toy fork. I've got man-sized hands. Give me a manly fork.

If it's the right time of day, the following will happen with incredible precision: coffee cups and cake plates will begin to be taken up until all evidence of coffee and cake are gone. Then, beer and wine, along with an assortment of nuts and crispy things will begin to be brought out. It's like a different party. Occasionally a plate will be brought out with filled with a sliced "worst," blocks of cheese and mustard for dipping. Discussion will continue through all of this.

The party can go on like this for a while. You can be trapped between an elderly aunt and a cousin for hours. I will usually pop outside with one of Fred's sisters when she goes out for a smoke. Any reason to get up and move around is good.

That said, when Fred and I have birthday parties - we've had a couple - we purposely move people outside and around so that the circle never really forms. Oh they try! But we open up the terrace (of the neighbor next door) and lure them outside so they can sit in the sun. (They cannot resist sitting in the sun, those Dutch.)

Our parties are always a good time. We're good hosts and Fred's got a very social, friendly family. They just need to be helped along to resist the circle. Reminds me of a boss I used to have. Bill McPherson was his name. He had a Christmas party one year and kept going around the room taking people's glasses and saying, "What's that? Bourbon and coke? Let me put a smile on it for you." Then he would add a little bourbon and a little coke so that to the glass so that it was full again. Got us all very drunk. I like to be Bill when we have a party. People like that. Of course we only serve beer, wine and "fris drank" (sodas), but it's always nice to picture him hosting. (He was Irish, and it showed up in his party hosting.)

If you ever find yourself at a Dutch birthday party, just follow what the others are doing. They are friendly and experienced at getting through them. And don't be afraid to get up and walk around if you need to.

6 comments:

Zwaalie said...

I try to avoid (Dutch) birthday parties. From now on will only go to a birthday party if it's a "Bill McPherson"-party!

Eric & Tony said...

Silly circle lovin' Dutch.
Bill sounds great!

That Rolfing sounds terrible and a little erotic. But mostly terrible.

Mama Mojo said...

It's true. Imagine my first Sinterklaas at the in-laws, sitting for five hours, pregnant and starving, while each present is meticulously unwrapped. After a while you feel like dead weight in those chairs. And they never play music. I stopped going. The torture is too much for me.

Alex said...

I was at yet another birthday party last Sunday. It was my mother-in-law's so couldn't say no. I have two survival rules - 1. sit next to my partner so that I have at least someone to talk to and 2. if my legs start to go to sleep, get up and help with the next round of food. They think I'm just a silly foreigner anyway so they smile politely when I get up to help. After attending a few of these birthday parties I vowed never to celebrate my birthday in this country. Next year though will be different (the big 5-0) so I'll have to find a tactic to block the circle forming thing. It will take the next 6 months to figure it out...

Dennis said...

It's just as strange to us Limburgers as it is to you foreigners, the congratulating every single person in the room, the coffee circle etc. WEIRD. Over here we have music, high tables where people have to stand and actually mingle and talk to other people and some couches spread about for those who want to sit now and again, and MUSIC. I have been to one of those dreaded coffee circles in Rotterdam and will never ever go to one again, the atmosphere was tense to say the least, not at all relaxed, no music doesn't help too and why no alcohol right from the start? Funny how in such a small country there are so many cultural differences depending on where you live, I feel sorry for you all I really do!

So it's

Sandert said...

I have lived in the dutch circle party atmosphere for 29 years and I must say there are several options in breaking these circular rules.
1: Get the chairs out of the room.
(or make sure there is not enough room to sit.
2: As the host, drink at your own party. (monkey see, monkey do)
3: If the weather permits, have a BBQ (not very likely to happen)
4: smoke dope....gets people going, especially the old aunt
5: play music and loud that helps!!

Good luck..

Now live in Australia so we have to cope with the horrible bbq's