No. 18 : Bring your own cake

If you’ve spent any time in a Dutch office you are sure to quickly notice an abundance of confectionery goods. The larger the office, the more often cake will mysteriously appear around the coffee machine. The workings of a generous boss with a sweet tooth? Nope, it’s the endearing Dutch tradition of eating cake on your birthday, no matter what your age. Sounds normal enough, right? But the Dutch twist on this tradition is that you are expected to buy and bring your own cake to the party! And here you were thinking that birthdays were all about you! Guess again!

Lekker Dutch vlaai

Lekker Dutch vlaai

In the land of the Dutchies, it is never appropriate to assume someone has brought you cake on your special day. More importantly do not think you can quietly avoid this tradition at work. If its your birthday the office manager, HR department, and even the Director is certain to know your b-day (a work-related birthday calendar in their toilet??) and you will certainly not make new friends or impress the colleagues by attempting to usurp this ever important socio-cultural norm. Bring in your cake, take in all the gefeliciteerdsdo a lot of 3-kisses, and enjoy yourself!

The standard Dutch birthday cake is normally a pastry tart topped with assorted fruit and whipped cream, commonly referred to as vlaai.  On birthdays a variety of of cakes are appropriate including appeltaart (apple pie), Limburgse vlaai, peperkoek (gingerbread) and even spekkoek (layered cake from Indonesia).

Not a great baker?  Not to worry – there are a multitude of Dutch businesses that are supported solely by the fact that every working citizen has to buy at least one birthday cake a year. Do the math folks, that’s over 10 million vlaai a year!

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  1. Pingback: No.7: Orange | Stuff Dutch People Like

  2. And what even more weird is that if you go to a birthday party, everyone congrats everyone for their friends birthday! haha!

    • They don’t congratulate them ‘for’ their birthday, they congratulate them ‘with’ their friend’s birthday. There’s actually a difference and not that weird at all. I see a similar thing happen here in the US all the time.

    • “Gefeliciteerd”
      *left cheek right cheek left cheek*
      next person
      “Gefeliciteerd”
      *left cheek right cheek left cheek*

      though the males often just shake hands with each other.

      and I must say that this is most common in the birthday celebration with the family (aunts and uncles perhaps grandparents too etc.)
      with friend birthdays it is less common.

      • To be more precise: one has to kiss the left cheek while saying Ge-, the right cheek at -fe-, and to end the cerimonial congratulation by kissing the left cheek again with the ending of the word -liciteerd. Weird stuff when you think of it

  3. As a Dutchy I love reading posts on this website! Every nation has its peculiarities!

    • So true – a Dutchie overseas can never get enough of their homeland – FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE :)

  4. Hilarious… as a relocated American or an official inburgerd New Netherlander, I just found this blog last week and it keeps me rolling! Thanks a ton and I also find that I too (a native Texan) participating in much of the Dutch traditions. I am however thankful that my partner has a normal last name…my American friends and family would not even dare to pronounce Fokker! I can now say Fokker with not even a blush; ok just a small one!

  5. Whipped cream pie is another very traditional type of pie (Slagroomtaart, mmm!), in the northen part of Netherlands maybe even more so than Vlaai is, which is more traditional in the south (beneden de rivieren).

    Love your posts! I am Dutch myself but know quite a few non-Dutch (Americans, Australians; have lived in both countries for quite a while), and I love reading how you think of our little country.

    Another thing that always pops up in conversations with non-Dutch, is the word ‘gezellig’, maybe you’ve already written about it but otherwise, that would make a great entry too. Keep up the good work!

  6. Very nice site, but I must say that about some things I have heard like: bringing your own cake, no present no cake, only one cookie with the coffee, only coffee and cake by the parties etc ….in my 11 years living in Rotterdam, I have never seen it so I guess it is something that happens in little cities.

  7. As a Dutchy i find reading these little stories about us hilarious. Not always accurate, but nevertheless very funny. I have never in my live brought a cake to a birthday party. A birthday gift of course, but never a cake. But i like the idea…the more cake at a birthday party the better:-)

      • Can I first say that I love this site. It will be very helpful for my hubby who does have problems at times understanding the Dutch habbits. (He’s English, I’m Dutch.)
        But….. that ‘trakteren’ is a habbit in England too. I have taken many cakes into the office on my birthday. And so have my colleagues. Mabye the English are taken over the good Dutch habbits??? :)

    • Desiree, what is meant here is “trakteren” – bringing a cake to the office, or giving cake to your guests on your birthday party, instead of the guests bringing a cake for you.

    • I was a student while in the Netherlands. Didn’t have to necessarily provide cake, but I did ask what my friends wanted from the canteen (a store in the school which sells milks, yogurt drinks, coffee, tea, and individual treats such as cookies).

  8. Oh my Gosh! This is Hilarious!!!
    So true!!! I have to say that working in the office, this was my least favorite part. Not only because you feel obligated on bringing something, but your colleagues keep on asking about it and they can give you a very uncomfortable feeling if you are taking too long on getting something! On my first birthday i had a colleague coming to my desk and asking me if i would like her to go with me to get something? I was like: WHAT???
    The whole kissing… WOW… really is that really necessary? The funny part is that everybody in my office hates the whole Congratulations part and the whole singing “Lang zal die leven, Lang zal die leven” but nobody says anything to stop it! The same people complain everytime someone has a birthday but they just go on and on…. I really don’t get it!

  9. “But the Dutch twist on this tradition is that you are expected to buy and bring your own cake to the party! And here you were thinking that birthdays were all about you! Guess again!”

    I’m dutch and this is totally normal..it would be a total nightmare if you have to trust your friends on bringing a cake..it would be eaten before arrival! ;)

    • Eaten if your friend is a Dutch. In my native country I always had several cakes brought by my friends and never faced that problem!

  10. The principle of “trakteren” is being practised by the very young. Even in pre school (kindergarten?) parents arrange candy / cake / whatever, for the kids to share with their classmates in school. The teacher will make a birthday hat for the lucky kid, and make the kid walk to other teachers in the school to give them a piece of the pie / cake as well.

    This happens with 5 – 12 year olds. (or at least it did in my days), as you can see… trakteren is part of our culture. It’s considered polite and social, but we do make sure we mention it before dropping by someone’s house of course :)

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  12. I’m Dutch but I now live in Texas, and I was shocked to see that in America, once you’re an adult your birthday hardly gets celebrated. Not only no ‘trakteren’ (maybe you can write a post about the closer relationship people in the workplace have in Holland), but no birthday parties. Only when you’re thirty or forty or fifty, preferably work funereal over-the-hill decorations. My husband said it would be weird to invite people to my birthday because then they’d feel they had to buy a present. It’s just not done. I miss Dutch birthdays, not just mine, but my friends’ birthdays. It was much more gezellig!

    • I too, as a Dutchie in America, brought my own cake to my American office…..and people thought I was weird :P. Also I hate it when my birthday goes by without a decent party and having people over. Some traditions should be integrated into American culture.:P

  13. Pingback: No. 10: Birthday congratulations | Stuff Dutch People Like

  14. I’m a Dutch living in China, and funnily enough here having your birthday basically means you’re going to be treating all your friends to whatever activity undertaken (dinner, karaoke, a night out drinking or all of the above). We’re not alone in the tradition! :)

  15. Ehm, as an import Dutchy (not from the anglo-saxon world) can I say that peperkoek would not be the best thing to bring to the office. In my 25 years or so over here I have never seen that taken to the office. It’s okay for breakfast though, or as a quick snack. It’s not very festive.

    • Haha :P
      When a foreigner would do this he prolly get told it’s kinda awkward and next year he will have a better ‘traktatie’. However when Dutch people do this they will probably not be speaken to for a week or so…The dutch expect pie! ;)

    • I agree! I’ve never handed out peperkoek or spekkoek to anyone on my birthday… Spekkoek is just a snack and peperkoek is a breakfast-thing… very different from pie!

  16. What you say about the Dutch bringing their own cake on their birthday is absolutely true (I always brought my own cake, but not such a cheap tasteless factory-vlaai). The funny thing is that I just moved to England for a new job, and in my office it is exactly the same. Almost every day there is cake for the colleagues left by somebody who is celebrating his/her birthday. Apparently not uniquely dutch…

  17. This site is hilarious! My girlfriend is British and has been living here in A’dam for 8 years now, but there is still stuff I just can’t explain to here. Very funny to read all the stories and comments!

  18. Sweet pastries are typical for offices with many women in the work-force. In a ‘male dominated’ working environment (i.e. a factory) you will find a wider range of ‘tractaties’. Men are notably more partial to savoury treats, like saucijzenbroodjes (minced meat in puff paste) and kaasbroodjes (the same but with cheese, not to be confused with ‘broodje kaas’, a cheese sandwich) or croquetten. You don`t have to bring them yourself. The receptionist will have the phone-number of a pastry baker and you can order them. For sweet treats men prefer a variety of gevulde koeken, because you can eat them from the hand without spilling bits all over the place, and because you can buy them in the supermarket.

  19. I’ve never quite wrapped my head around the tradition of having to host your own party, but the bringing in a treat for your birthday isn’t so foreign. Back when I was in school, you brought in cupcakes to your school class to celebrate your birthday.

    However, I’m afraid I started something in my office almost 6 years ago. Because I traveled an hour by train, I couldn’t really take a few boxes of taart with me and arrive with them intact. So since my birthday is on Dec 10th, I brought oliebollen.

    Of course, this was thought of as strange when it started, but this past year when I mentioned that now I have my drivers license, I can bring something normal, I had an office revolt on my hands! Yea, they got their oliebol and we lived off them for about 3 days.

  20. I really dislike this custom. I’m from Mississippi and back home you get spoiled on your birthday however old you are. Here in Rotterdam i’ve found myself sweating it out in the damn kitchen for a day or two and filling everybody’s glasses and cleaning up afterwards. I really adore entertaining, but on my birthday, i want to be the Queen! I do however enjoy the kissing part. : D

  21. yes you bring your own cake to the office on your birthday (but certainly NOT peperkoek!!! Peperkoek is too normal and not considered a treat) BUT you also bring cake for a lot of other things that are worth celebrating like getting your driver’s license; buying a new house; passing some important exam etc.
    Here in the south its also okay to bring worstenbroodjes (family of the hotdog) or better to order worstenbroodjes so that they arrive fresh and warm!
    You can avoid the kissing by making ridiculous air kisses next to someones cheek and making funny kissing sounds; then they get the picture: you don’t like kissing but they’re not offended if you make fun of it in a nice way.

  22. What a funny website! I’m really enjoying to read about our customs and how foreigners think of these customs :)

    Peperkoek and spekkoek aren’t cakes that are brought to work or other places to ‘trakteren.’ They taste nice, but not for these kind of accessions.

    Appelflappen are also common tot ‘trakteren’ or even kersenflappen.

  23. Hi! I’m Spanish and here we also host our owns birthday parties! So this doesn’t sound weird at all to me. Maybe it’s an European thing? :P (maybe Americans are the weird ones here xD)

  24. It just occurred to me that we don’t have a gender-neutral, age-neutral word like “jarige” in English. “Birthday boy/girl” is the closest thing I can think of.

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  26. Funny you should mention the birthday calender. Even though I’m Dutch, I’ve always thought these cake-offerings to be awfully ritualistic (and obesity enhancing), so I tried to evade this norm at my last job by not telling my birthday. Some manager at the same department at one point actually put a birthday calender outside his office – listing everybody, including myself. I actually did not know him very well and he certainly did not consult me on his initiative (a fusion of Dutch normalcy and Anglosaxon team building?). I was forced to be so deviant as to cross out my name, but by then some direct collegues of mine already noticed with heartfelt regret that my birthday had passed by uncelebrated a short while before that.

  27. The “trakteren op je verjaardag” actually starts on primary school, where you’re supposed to give candy/chocolate/cake to everyone in your classroom. Also to be noted; it’s a tradition that doesn’t necessarily go without comment in Holland. Some people will try not to “trakteer” on their birthday in the office by taking a day off, or expect that nobody will remember their birthday if it is in the weekend an thus no office-day…

  28. I’m a Dutchie living abroad. It wasn’t until I lived away from Holland for years that I realised how funny the custom of celebrating birthdays in Holland is – or what it was like when I lived there. On your birthday all friends, neighbours and family arrive at 8pm bearing gifts (has to be after dinner), all the chairs are placed in a circle around the room, including any available dining chairs and kitchen stools, everybody congratulates everybody with the ‘jarige’s’ birthday, then it’s coffee and slagroomtaart. After that it’s a drink and ‘hapjes’, and gezelligheid. Busiest day of the year for the jarige!

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  30. What’s more is that a Dutch person won’t acknowledge your birthday if you aren’t going to give them cake. My first year here I was severely depressed and had just given birth (which was so botched up there had to be a hospital inquiry into it) three weeks earlier and decided to forego a birthday party – not a single card or phone call from any of my Dutch friends or even my in-laws, no recognition that I even existed. They taught me my lesson, and I throw a party every year no matter how I feel, because having everyone ignore you on your birthday is even worse.

    • That’s rubbish. I’m sorry to hear that happenned to you, but not acknowledging a birthday just because you’re not going to get any cake? I’ve never heard of anyone doing that. You almost always give someone a call or send them a text or a facebookmessage (provided you remember or notice it’s their birthday and you care enough about it). Maybe it happens in very uptight or conservative families, but again it probably wouldn’t be because of the lack of cake, but due to the lack of a celebration.

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  33. haha is the bday calendar really always in the toilet? I noticed the calendar on the wall of my tantes toilet, we had one growing up but we had it in the kitchen. I remember seeing it in the bathroom at my tantes and thought why is it in here?

  34. I was managing a team of 6 in the office I was in, and even though I was bedridden with sickness on my birthday and answering emails only from home, they INSISTED that I come into the office and bring cake, as THEY didn’t want to miss out on cake for my birthday. I had to travel for an hour with cake, sit and eat it (promptly threw it up again), then travel an hour back home…

    • It’s quite normal to bring your own cake to work If it’s your birthday in new Zealand as well, maybe also the UK as that’s where a lot of people here are originally from? But it’s not mandatory. Also bringing sweets if you’ve been on holiday overseas and at Christmas.

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  36. Tarts and pies are not cakes. Gingerbread is a quickbread, and not cake. Pretty much everything mentioned in this post is not cake.

    • It’s funny how some people think it’s odd to bring your own cake to the party because by doing so you don’t feel like a QUEEN. I am Russian and in my country a birthday girl cleans the house and provides a full sit-down dinner AND looks like a queen :-). NOT providing this kind of fun to your friends and family would be definitelly concidered ODD. I guess, every country has it’s customs ;-) It’s what you are used to. But, she gets rewarded by lotsa love, gifts, fun…
      Great blog!

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  38. Peperkoek is just something to eat in the morning, it is very uncommon to eat peperkoek for your birthday instead op cake/pie.

  39. I wonder how people like me (gluten intolerant) would manage? Would I be told to “be normal” and eat the pastry even though it would make me sick? Or told that the gluten free cake I would have to bring tastes like chalk (which it kinda does, but Americans are nice about it).
    I’m so sad that I’ll never get to try a stroopwafle!

    • Nobody is forced to eat cake! Most people who don’t want the cake simply claim they’re on a diet. Their co-workers are only too glad to take care of any left-overs. ;)
      I’m sad to hear that the gluten-free cake you know taste like chalk. The one I baked for a friend (using rice-meal) surely didn’t, Once they know you’re gluten intolerant, a surprising number of people will go out of their way to make sure there is at least one portion made from alternative ingredients, or something non-pastry, especially the ones who like to bake their own cake. Making sure everybody enjoys the treat is a matter of pride tot them. (Except maybe for the ones that merely go through the motions because it’s expected of them. Disbelievers, heretics! Boo, hiss!) I once worked for a company where the treats were still ordered from the bakery that used to be across the street from them, even after the company had moved to another town, because they were that good. So even when you’re ‘on a diet’ make sure to compliment them on how delicious it looks. It will be appreciated.
      There is a large choice of non-glute products and ingredients readily available in shops, and an even larger choice in specialized shops. Gluten free sponge cake is available in the country’s most common supermarkets. (Not sure how they taste, though.) Gluten intolerancy isn’t that uncommon. Did you know it was discovered in the Netherlands? During the ‘hongerwinter’, in the last year of WWII, when food was really scarse, a number of children who had always been in poor health suddenly livened up when the didn’t get fed bread – which upto that time was regarded as the penultimate good food. After the allies started the ‘bread bombardements’ to relieve the famine in the occupied territories, they fell ill again. That’s when people realized they suffered from ‘bread allergy’. Or so the stroy goes. ;)
      Waffles can be homemade in those electrical grill thingies you can buy fo 15 euro. Just look online for stroopwafelijzer. The same irons are used to make icecream cones (oublie hoorntjes). You can also buy gluten free stroopwafels in the shops.

      • Oh, that’s such cool news! I had heard that gluten issues were discovered before then too, but it’s so neat to hear about the kids who got better. My daughter was a little like that – she had awful stomach trouble, and was advised by doctors to eat whole grain breads and cereals for the fiber. She kept getting sicker until we got rid of the gluten!

        Chalk is an overstatement – they usually just taste heavy and a bit gritty.

  40. I just came across this post whilst searching for an answer to the question ‘why do I have to bring in treats for MY birthday’. I just want to say that this isn’t solely a Dutch tradition. I am a Dutchie currently living in England and they do the same thing.

    And a typical birthday cake for me would be ‘slagroom taart’ – not ‘vlaai’

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