Bitterballenbruid: The quirkiest birthday and anniversary Dutch celebrations
Once you're referred to as the biblical characters 'Abraham' or 'Sarah', you know you're getting old – and wise – and that invitations for a 'circle party' must have been sent.
There are certain idiosyncrasies, and social rules, at Dutch birthday and anniversary celebrations that take a little getting used.
Here is a collection of mini-series written about strange Dutch celebrations, to share stories about special events which Dutch people celebrate – such as 'circle' birthday parties, 'half-year' anniversaries and newborns.
Bithday celebrations: The rules of the 'Dutch' circle party
To put this into context for people who have not attended an English birthday party, we typically celebrate in the birthday person’s house or a bar – either way, somewhere laden with booze. You get drunk, dance, tell bad jokes and possibly pass out on the floor somewhere. There might be a few nibbles, namely cheese and pineapple on sticks and possibly a few sausage rolls. But mainly, it’s about the drinking, or what we call 'partying'.
Dutch birthday parties on the other hand are a whole other kettle of fish.
1. Arrival and greetings
Upon arrival, you need to greet the birthday boy or girl. You don’t say 'happy birthday' but 'gefeliciteerd' (meaning congratulations) and give them three kisses. It’s a hard word to pronounce for English speakers, but don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of practice as you’re also expected to congratulate the family of the birthday boy/girl as well – for example, “Gefeliciteerd met je zoon,” (congratulations with your son) – and give three kisses if you know the person well, or shake their hand if not.
You also have to greet everyone at the party individually. For this, a simple, “Hallo, ik ben Hayley,” (Hello, I’m Hayley) will do – again with a handshake for strangers or three kisses for people you know. Dutch people love introducing themselves, and children above a certain age are also expected to introduce themselves. Personally, I think this is a wonderful thing – encouraging kids to be sociable – but once they’ve shaken your hand they’ll go back to playing their video game or watching TV. Ah well, at least they tried.
2. Coffee and Cake
Greetings done, you’ll now be offered coffee/tea and some cake. Yes, you read that right – cake at the beginning of a party – surely that’s a dessert?
3. The Circle of Doom
Chairs are arranged into a circle formation and people chat politely about the weather and so on for several hours or until the cake is gone.
4. Alcohol (finally)
Then it’s time for an alcoholic drink. Party time, right? Wrong. There’s no music and you continue to sit in a circle and chat with your circle party neighbours.
At this point there might be some food. If it’s winter you’ll most likely get... soup! But how do you eat soup while holding a drink and a conversation at the same time? Commenter Imelda adds: “You know why we serve soup at parties, right? Because it's cheap (smiley face).” Her words, not mine.
Kids will probably be served broodje knakworst (a hotdog in a bun) and chippies (a cute word for crisps). In summer there will probably be bread and leverworst (liver sausage) and hopefully some oude kaas (literally: old cheese). Yum!
5. Go home
At 6pm it’s time to leave – yes, the Dutch have start and finish times for their parties. Could it have something to do with the fact that it’s the birthday boy or girl’s job to buy all of the food and drinks for the occasion?
While we’re on the subject, do you work in an office? Then you’ll also need to buy cake for the whole workforce. Happy birthday to you!
Dutch 50th celebrations: Welcome Abraham and Sarah
If it’s a special birthday, say you're turning 50, then the fun is about to get a whole lot freakier. Maybe you want to keep it quiet, have a small meal with the family, or something like that – so such luck in the Netherlands. Your home, garden or place of work (or all three) will be decorated by your ‘loving’ friends and family with posters, banners, balloons and a life-sized doll of you.
Turning 50 in the Netherlands is a big deal – and your whole street will know about it. Apparently it means you are old and wise enough to have ‘seen Abraham’, or if you’re a woman old enough to have ‘seen Sarah’ – coming from the biblical figures. According to the bible, Abraham lived until he was 175 and Sarah until she was 127, so if you make it to 50 you’re deemed old enough to have ‘wisdom through experience’.
Traditionally there’s a big party with cake. Or, if your friends are jokers, you might get something like this:
This was given to my brother-in-law on his 50th birthday party, rather than a traditional cake. Basically it’s just another excuse to make fun of your friends and loved ones. His office was also decorated as seen below (smiley used to cover his handsome face). In addition to the hullabaloo at work, he also had a party at home to celebrate. At his birthday BBQ he was given a zimmer frame while we – his friends and family – sang a song to him about how ‘over the hill’ he is. Nice, huh?
But there's no need to get mad – you just get even when your friends and colleagues turn 50. If that's passed already, you still have 60th, 70th, 80th – they’re all celebrated. Of course, if you're only turning 25, then you celebrate half Abraham or Sarah – and you get half a cake. Funny Dutchies!
Other ‘kroonjaren’ (translates to crown years) are celebrated as follows:
- 25 Half Abraham (or Sara/Sarah)
- 50 Abraham (or Sara/Sarah)
- 60 Isaac/Isaak (or Elisabeth/Elizabeth/Rebekka/Rebecca)
- 70 Jacob (or Anna/Rachel/Lea)
- 80 Joseph (or Deborah/Asnath)
- 90 Anthony/Antonius/Efraïm (or Ruth)
- 100 Methusalem (or Judith)
In my experience, names seem to vary. To the right is how it's done the traditional way: the cake my schoonmoeder was given for her 70th birthday, or ‘Lea’ – accompanied by a big circle party, natuurlijk!
Wedding anniversaries: The 12 and a half year celebration
The English tend to celebrate their wedding anniversaries every year. But how long do you have to wait until it’s time for a big old party? Generally, people celebrate ‘properly’ when they make it to 20 or 25 years.
In case you’re not au fait with traditional wedding anniversary names, here’s the list of highlights:
- 1st Paper
- 10th Tin
- 15th Crystal
- 20th China
- 25th Silver
- 30th Pearl
- 40th Ruby
- 50th Gold
- 60th Diamond
The names of some of the anniversaries are supposed to provide guidance for appropriate gifts for the spouses to give each other, but I’m not sure people still do that nowadays. We still call the biggies by their traditional names though, for example most people know what a 'Golden' wedding anniversary is.
But if you’re Dutch, when do you celebrate your wedding anniversary? After 12 and a half years, of course! So if you got married in August 2014 then you have a party to celebrate your anniversary in February 2027. Good old Wikipedia confirms that the Netherlands also has a similar method to the UK, with the addition that they also celebrate 37 ½ months, 6 ¼ years and 12 ½ years.
Dutch wedding celebrations (jaar = year, maanden = months):
- 1 jaar Katoen (Cotton)
- 37 ½ maanden Blik (Tin)
- 6 ¼ jaar IJzer (Iron)
- 10 jaar Blik (Tin)
- 12 ½ jaar Koper (Copper)
- 20 jaar Porselein (Porcelain)
- 25 jaar Zilver (Silver)
- 30 jaar Parel (Pearl)
- 40 jaar Robijn (Ruby)
- 50 jaar Goud (Gold)
- 60 jaar Diamant (Diamond)
What's the real reason the Dutch celebrate 12 ½ years of marriage? Maybe they can’t wait 25 years for an excuse to party!
Yet another reason why I love the Dutch.
Giving birth: Announcements and aniseed balls
Back home, when someone has a baby, they probably call their Mum, and after a few days the couple might get in touch with other friends and family to announce their new arrival. Some people plaster the event all over Facebook; their choice.
But if you have a baby in Holland, you just announce it to the whole street – with coloured banners, bunting, balloons (blue for a boy, pink for a girl), possibly a stork, and any other baby related paraphernalia you can think of.
Situatie gewijzigd = situation changed
Then comes the baby announcement card, aka the geboortekaartje. Organised parents-to-be will have already selected the card design and the baby name, so when their little bundle of joy arrives all they have to do is fill in the date, time and weight at birth. Oh and because they’re Dutch, the baby’s length – a very important detail!
The geboortekaartje (literally: birth card) is something we Brits could definitely learn from the Dutch – all the vital statistics, on one piece of card, is so handy (especially if, like me, you’re terrible with remembering birthdays).
Once you’ve got your card – which means you’re part of the inner circle – it's time to visit the little pipsqueak. There, you'll need to eat a rusk with butter and aniseed balls on top.
For me, this is worse than holding a brand new, tiny baby and worrying if I'll drop it. I’m not a baby – I don’t eat rusk, especially not with butter and aniseed balls! But it’s a Dutch custom, so when a baby is born, you’ve got to do it.
Beschuit met muisjes (literally: rusk with little mice, real meaning: rusk with aniseed balls) come in three types:
- White and blue balls for a boy
- White and pink balls for a girl
- White and orange balls when a new member of the Royal family is born.
Are you looking forward to geboortekaartjes dropping through your letterbox?
Hayley (aka Bitterballenbruid) is 32 and lives in Hilversum, the Netherlands, with her Dutch husband and their cat called Paris (no, she didn’t name her – long story). Her blog Bitterballenbruid is about living in het Gooi, eating too many bitterballen, getting married in Holland, learning how to be Dutch, and dealing with the language. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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