There was nothing wrong I could suspect when I was going to my friend’s birthday party one night last August. Indeed, one would ask, what can be so surprising about a birthday party?
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A big birthday cake with colorful candles, the traditional “Happy Birthday” song, lots of presents wrapped into colorful paper, games, fun, laughter – this is a standard list of expectations anyone would have going to a birthday party.
However, in that particular case I should have known better. My friend is from the Netherlands, and it has appeared that the Dutch have a very different understanding of the way birthdays should be celebrated.
A good company is the half of the success when it concerns parties. When I entered my friend’s living room, I saw quite a dull picture that made me wonder whether I would really have a pleasurable evening.
Instead of a merry crowd of friends dressed in party clothes and fancy birthday caps, a group of rather grave-looking middle-aged people was seated in a neat circle around a low coffee table. Since I had never seen any of them before, the “newborn” introduced them to me, during which I had to shake a dozen hands and to smile politely.
This prolonged exercise did not make me altogether happy, the more so because the chairs were set so closely to each other that I could hardly walk between them without brushing against another aunt or uncle. After the round was over, I struggled back to my seat and settled there in expectation of something more exciting.
Since all the guests assembled, the party was ready to begin. And here came another distressing surprise: the presents. Traditionally, presents are something special you give to a person in order to emphasize how important he or she is for you.
But this was not the case that evening. When my friend started opening the presents she got, I could hold back from uttering a cry of bewilderment. Most unimaginable and commonplace objects were given to her: a plastic lunch container, a tube of toothpaste wrapped in an old newspaper page, and even a roll of toilet paper!
Against such primitiveness, the expensive silver dinner set I gave her stood out as nothing less than ostentation. While the rest of the presents were greeted with a general sigh of approval, my gift obviously caused confusion among the guests.
A general silence hung in midair, everyone looking at each other as if asking how one should react to this display of generosity. The uneasiness was finally broken by my friend announcing she was ready to serve coffee.
Yes, you have heard it right: coffee was the main course that evening! If you think the main treatment at a birthday party is the birthday cake, you are deeply mistaken.
The birthday cake was brought into the room without a single candle on it and without any “Happy Birthday” sung by anyone. It was brought simply for everyone to see it — and then quickly taken back to the kitchen. In a couple of minutes, my friend reappeared carrying a large tray with what used to be the birthday cake: roughly a dozen of saucers each bearing a small piece of cake.
That was it, no other treatment for guests apart from endless cups of coffee! My asking for a second serving of the cake or for a drink other than coffee was met with astonishment bordering on indignation.
Needless to say, the party was over within an hour. As if on command, the guests rose from their seats, ceremoniously thanked the lady of the house, and left. I wonder if they had fun that evening, and I cannot imagine they really did. Personally speaking, I was rather disappointed, since it had been more an official reception than a cordial get-together.
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Since I have learnt that this is a typical birthday party in the Netherlands, I feel the more pity for the Dutch.
Van Mullingen, Amanda. “The Dutch Birthday Circle.” A Letter from the Netherlands. A Letter from the Netherlands, 8 Sept. 2008.
- Amanda van Mulingen describes a similar experience in her blog.