Dutch Language Blog

Hoera! Ik Ben Jarig! Posted by on Jan 14, 2011 in Culture


Wednesday was my birthday. Birthday’s in the Netherlands have always been an interesting phenomenon because of the cultural differences associated with them.

Congratulations on the Birthday of Your Mother’s Cousin’s Hairdresser’s Dog

When it is your birthday, not only do you get congratulated but everyone associated to you does too. The whole day, whenever someone Dutch called to wish me a happy birthday, I had to pass the phone to my boyfriend once they were done talking to me so that they could also congratulate him. This starts to get even more intense when a Dutch Birthday Circle is involved (see below).

Kisses Galore!

Most people have already learned about the three kiss rule for greeting and saying goodbye in the Netherlands. Well a birthday earns you those three kisses as well. Thankfully they are usually just rolled into the traditional hello kisses or else it would start to get a bit much.

Where’s Your Cake?

Gone are the days when you showed up to your birthday party to be greeted with a cake lovingly prepared (or bought) by the party organizer. In the Netherlands, it is the responsibility of the birthday person to bring along his or her own cake. This includes to the party and also when you go to work.

The Dreaded Birthday Circle

The Dutch seem to love to party. Birthday’s are typically a big deal, resulting in an open house approach of going round to visit the birthday person at his or her home. When you arrive it is of course crucial to congratulate the birthday girl or guy, give them the traditional three kisses and hand them your gift. Then you need to go around the room congratulating everyone in the room and giving them three kisses as well (if you are lucky you might be able to get away with a firm handshake). “Gefeliciteerd met jouw dochter” *kiss, kiss, kiss* “Gefeliciteerd met jouw zus” *kiss, kiss, kiss* “Gefeliciteerd met jouw….” *kiss, kiss, kiss*

If that wasn’t unusual enough, the next thing you will notice is that everyone is sitting in a circle. It doesn’t matter if when everyone arrived the chairs were strategically scattered throughout the room. The Dutch seem to have an internal homing device which means they automatically gather the chairs and form a circle. The circle will be expanded to include new guests as they arrive but the shape itself will alter very little.  Finally, the birthday person will look after all of his or her guests by offering them a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. Sausage and cheese (worst en kaas) are also often provided on plates in the middle of the circle.

This year, I am not having a Dutch Birthday Circle nor providing my own birthday cake.  Instead I am having a dim sum evening with some friends.  Hey, old habits die hard!

N.B. Not all Dutch birthdays are created equal. Your practise or experience may be different.

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  1. Victoria:

    That is funny! I’ve been living in NL since April and I thought it was very strange when people would say “congratulations!” in a very knowing way. It was my boyfriend’s birthday or someone else’s birthday in the family. Why were they congratulating me though, I asked myself, I didn’t give birth to him!

    • heather:

      @Victoria Victoria, you have made me laugh out loud because I have exactly the same feeling! I’ve never quite got the whole congratulations thing. I would say we could look at it like, “congratulations on sticking with them until another birthday” but then that doesn’t sound so nice when it is our birthday! 😉

  2. Bdettije:

    I grew up in Canada reading “Jan, Jans en de kinderen” and I always remember the one where Catootije invited everyone one she met on her birthday back to her house for cake.

    • heather:

      @Bdettije That must have been one very large birthday circle! I’ll have to look in the library for that book. I love looking at children’s books, especially ones in other languages.

  3. Chris:

    I have been living in the UK for the past 3 years and am originally from the Netherlands. I explained this whole thing once to my wife and my inlaws and they sort of frowned. One of these days I will take my wife to Holland so we can actually BE at a birthday and see how she experiences it lol.

    • heather:

      @Chris Oh Chris! You cruel, cruel man! 😉 Maybe you should try and get the trend going in the UK.

  4. nic steinvoorte:

    All so true! Funny lot, the Dutch, but I think it’s an endearing tradition.
    I don’t like it much that the birthday girl is running around serving refreshments to everyone the entire time. Friends made the deal that if HE was ‘jarig’ she would do all the catering and if it was HER ‘verjaardag’ she could just sit and visit with the guest while he took care of them. Good deal!
    Have you ever been to a birthday party where there are TWO circles? One for the men and one for the women? It’s kind of old fashioned, but it does still happen when too many gals cling together or too many guys sit near each other.

    • heather:

      @nic steinvoorte Two birthday circles?!?! The mind boggles! I almost want to attend lots of parties just to find one and experience it! Your friends have a good arrangement going there. I know a couple that tried putting all the drinks in the kitchen and told people to just help themselves (after giving out the first drink) and it really didn’t work.

  5. Bdettije:

    Jan, Jans en de kinderen was a comic strip. Here’s a link http://www.janjans.nl.nu/

    • heather:

      @Bdettije Thanks for the link Bdettije. I’ll have to check it out!

  6. Bernadette Joolen:

    What a sweet funny article you’e written about this endearing tradition of the Dutch birthday! I especially love your mention of the Dutch internal honing device… It seems an instinct for some kind of symmetry, or equality. Ah! I may have missed these kinds of parties then, leaving Holland when I was four! But some of the internal honing devices remain. (I think there are more!) You can take the girl out of Holland but… Cheers, prost on your birthday!~~bernadette…

    • heather:

      @Bernadette Joolen Thank you Bernadette and I am glad you liked the post. Maybe we need a list of the Dutch internal honing devices! 😉

  7. grace:

    good lord that circle! i’d do anything to avoid it. yesterday i went to my dutch friend’s birthday and i arrived really early, so i had to kiss only three people!

    • heather:

      @grace So only nine kisses in total then, Grace! 🙂