Dutch culture: How to celebrate a Dutch birthday party?

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Are our birthday parties really that boring? That is the typical reaction of Dutch people, when foreigners talk about a Dutch birthday.

Students from the BLC summer school and expats in the Netherlands share their experiences of celebrating a birthday in the Netherlands.

This is quite confrontational for Dutch people

Culture shock

For some of them it was a real culture shock. So what are we talking about? What does a Dutch birthday party look like?

Good old fashioned ‘kringfeest’ (circle party)

One thing that comes up when talking about a traditional Dutch birthday is the infamous circle. There is the birthday boy or girl surrounded by family and friends, at home, all sitting in a circle.

You can’t just slip into this circle unnoticed. You have to go around and greet every member. And not only do you say hello, joining a birthday party comes with a strange Dutch custom.

Everybody congratulating everybody

It is usual that you also congratulate the people who are close to the person who has the birthday. And since only close friends and relatives are usually invited to the party, the result is that everyone congratulates everyone else!

You can tell by the reactions in the video: this is a really strange thing for most expats, when they arrive for the first time at a Dutch birthday party and they are congratulated themselves!

Tip 1

It’s most likely that you will be invited to their home. This is much more common than going to a bar or restaurant.

Tip 2

Bring a present, together with a birthday card. The present should not be anything very expensive.

For some people in the video it was a strange experience that the Dutch open their gifts immediately. Don’t be surprised if they give their honest opinion about the gift. And this might not be super positive. But still, in general, most Dutch people are happy with any gift. Or at least, they say they are.

Tip 3

Maybe this comes as a surprise but it’s not usual to give money. It even feels impolite for Dutch people.

Eating and drinking – Where is it?

In other countries it may be usual that the friends organize the party and pay for drinks and food. It’s not like that in the Netherlands.

And don’t expect fancy drinks. Coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer and wine. Most likely, that’s it. Drinks are usually served by the host, probably to make sure that the party stays under control.

There are also one or two birthday cakes. If you’re hungry, try to get a second piece as quickly as possible, because usually there is not enough for everyone to have an extra piece. There are some other things like cheese with olives, potato crisps and if you’re lucky, some fried food like bitterballen.

How do the Dutch remember birthdays?

Look carefully in a lot of households and you’ll see a calendar hanging in the toilet. Although social media such as Facebook, are quite handy nowadays.

New ideas

This kind of party is still popular, but younger people tend to think it’s a bit boring. So don’t be surprised if you go to a Dutch birthday and experience strange unusual things like dancing, music and partying.

But usually the birthday boy or girl is at home surrounded by family and friends, all sitting in a circle.  No music, not much to eat, coffee, tea or beer and just talking…

But.. this is not always the case

Sometimes the Dutch like to go a bit more crazy and get some old fashioned games out.

In Dutch these are called ‘Oud-Hollandse spellen’

Traditional Dutch game: Sjoelen

Let’s start with the one that’s probably the most popular: sjoelen.

Sjoelen is played on a wooden board (a shuffleboard) with wooden discs. At the end of the box there are four gates, with small openings through which the discs just fit. The goal of the game is to slide the discs through the gates.

This game used to be played by many families at Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but also on other special occasions.

If you see it for the first time, you might think it’s pretty easy. But its definitely more difficult than it looks.

Also beware, every family has its own rules and people can get pretty upset when they lose a game of sjoelen!

Traditional Dutch game: Koekhappen

Take a piece of gingerbread, string and a tea towel.  The foreigners in the video didn’t know what to do with them. But what you do is – tie the string around the slices of gingerbread and hang them at the right height for people to eat, so they can reach them blindfolded

The first person to finish their piece of gingerbread without using their hands is the winner. This game is mostly for children’s parties, but not always..

Traditional Dutch game: Spijkerpoepen

Spijkerpoepen, nail pooping! Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

The required materials for the game are:

  • a piece of string
  • a long nail
  • a bottle

The nail is tied to the string and the other end is attached to the player’s waist. The aim of the game is to get the nail into the bottle, without using anything other than hip, waist and thigh movements. The one who gets it in first, wins the game.

Hence the name spijkerpoepen!

What do you need to say?

When you arrive at a party, what do you need to say?

  • Gefeliciteerd!
  • Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag!

That means congratulations. You shake hands or you give three kisses.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School