I’ve never been so confused in my life, as when I first attended the birthday party of a Dutch friend. I had lived in the Netherlands a little under a year, and it happened to be my first real Dutch social affair. I arrived at the party and within minutes happened to be on door-duty. A group of the birthday boy’s friends walked in and immediately gave me 3 smoochy air-kisses followed by a trio of enthusiastic “Congratulations!”. I smiled awkwardly. That was odd! Congratulations for what? I scanned my mind for a list of recent accomplishments… Ah ha – the job promotion! I didn’t realize they knew? But nice of them to congratulate me on it, I supposed.
After moving into the living room, I was greeted by my friend’s mother and she again congratulated me, this time with a throaty Dutch “Gefeliciteerd“! I muttered a quick “Oh, its really not a big deal” which garnered quite an odd look from her before moving on. What happened next was completely unexpected: the entire room erupted into a flurry of “gefeliciteerd”s. Everybody was suddendly busy congratulating someone else! What the heck was going on?? Was there a group lottery win I didn’t know about?!?
Needless to say, you may have caught on that Dutch people like congratulating each other on their birthdays. If hanging around this lanky bunch, you of course will also need to congratulate the person who’s birthday it is. (You can consult your trusty Dutch birthday calendar for help). But, wait folks, HOLD UP – you also have to make your rounds through the crowd and congratulate everyone who is close to the person’s who’s birthday it is!! (Plus, if you are a woman, don’t forget to give out all those kisses – and hope you aren’t in the midst of a nasty flu breakout)!
There are two very Dutch cultural oddities at play here: #1) the actual “congratulations” part. The term “congratulations” is a bit over the top for us non-Dutch people. In English, the term “congratulations” is reserved for major occasions (graduations, weddings, birth of a child, promotions, etc). “Congratulations” on being born?? On being alive another year?? I just don’t get it?? #2) What is with congratulating people who’s birthday it isn’t! Why do they get congratulated? What did they do to deserve it?!? “Congratulations” on knowing someone who happens to be alive another year??
One thing’s for sure, while living in the lowlands you will get an awful lot of congratulations. A hell of a lot more than in other countries! In fact, it will almost feel like your own birthday on other people’s big day! But you’ll be sure to know when it’s your own -you’ll have the pleasure of having to bring your own cake!!
I suppose the Dutch are just trying to follow the wise words of the Mad Hatter by wishing each other: “A very merry un-birthday!”