9 Dutch birthday traditions that’ll confuse the heck out of internationals

For another trip around the sun! 🎂

First time celebrating someone’s birthday in the Netherlands? Gefeliciteerd! Birthdays are a special event in every culture and have their own little quirks — and the Netherlands is no exception. 

Naturally, it’s important to know about some common (but entirely weird to foreigners) traditions from the Netherlands that just make Dutch birthdays…different!

1. Congratulate everyone in sight

In most cultures, you just wish the birthday celebrant a happy birthday.

In the Netherlands, regardless of whose birthday it is, everyone is congratulated for celebrating a birthday with one simple word: gefeliciteerd (congratulations).

You can bet every single one of these guests said “gefeliciteerd” to each other when they arrived at the party. Image: Depositphotos

The birthday celebrant’s parents? Gefeliciteerd! Their siblings? Gefeliciteerd! Their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, cousins, and even their pet guinea pig? Gefeliciteerd! 

Why? Who knows?! Perhaps it was invented by the same people who invented the three-kisses greeting. Prepare for incoming slobbery lips and wet cheeks. 😗

TIP: Learning how to say “gefeliciteerd” is a MUST. Otherwise, you risk embarrassment and stares of judgment as you try to say this guttural word. 

2. Text someone’s parents instead of the birthday person

This is a bit cute but mostly impressively organised. Alright, so there’s a lot of congratulations in person. But did you know many parents of children having a birthday will receive a flood of texts?

Yeah — Dutchies are the kind of people to greet you for the most random birthdays they remember. Image: DutchReview

Let’s say your dad’s colleague at work may know it’s your birthday today. They’ll message your dad to congratulate him, buuut (since they probably don’t know you directly), you’ll get — you guessed it — nothing.

But, nice for your Dad, we guess. 🤷 

3. Sit in the circle of death during birthday parties

Usually, at a party, you would expect people to walk around and mingle with other guests. Instead, the Dutch LOVE to sit in one massive circle. 

No matter how many people there are at a birthday party, you wouldn’t catch them standing up. Why? Who knows.

However, we’ll give them this: sitting in a circle is essential for gezelligheid. This essential Dutch concept embodies all things comfy, warm, and happy.

You can’t have a Dutch birthday party without feeling cosy. And how do you do this? A circle layout!

Sometimes these parties feel a little staged with the awkward circle. Image: Depositphotos

A little circle (or maybe a large circle) is a great way to get a good look at everyone who’s at this party, and it makes sure that no one gets left out — talk about gezellig, indeed

But Dutch people do have their pet peeves with this tradition. The circle is known for being unbearably boring.

After all, there’s not much to sitting in a circle and talking to whoever you’re sitting next to. 🤷

4. Serve birthday tart instead of cake

If you’re wondering why anyone would bother serving something that isn’t a rich chocolate cake or a flawlessly decorated vanilla cake, your guess is better than ours. But, such is Dutch life. 🎂

Although they’re equally common, Dutchies, like to serve pies or local tarts, called vlaai instead of cake. 🍰 Vlaai is a traditional dessert to have on your birthday, so it’s only natural to serve something so unequivocally Dutch. 

These delightful treats are made of pastry and all kinds of fillings, from fruits like cherries and strawberries to a crumbled butter and sugar mix. 

Cake is the iconic birthday treat — but who could resist these delicious-looking Limburgse vlaai? Image: Depositphotos

The Netherlands isn’t known for being culinary innovators or for having an inventory of delicious recipes, but we have to say they nailed it when they invented vlaai. 

You’re also likely to find appeltaart at birthdays, the Netherlands’ iconic rendition of apple piece — and once you have a taste of these, you’ll never want to go back. 

5. Open birthday gifts in front of all their guests

Buying someone a birthday present is always appreciated!

But if you expect the celebrant to thank you for the gift and stash it away for later — think again. 

People will open your gifts in front of EVERYONE, and there is no stopping them. 😬

Opening birthday presents is an affair for the whole party. Image: Depositphotos

So maybe take that as a warning to not buy any gifts that could be embarrassing or inflammatory in front of their parents and oma en opa (grandma and grandpa). 

Not to mention, it feels extremely awkward having everyone watch one person open their presents one by one — often in silence to achieve peak awkwardness.

6. Let all their friends roast them on their 21st birthday

The legal age in the Netherlands is 18, but for some reason, doing a big celebration for your 21st birthday has become a big thing in the Netherlands. But if it’s an excuse for another party, how can we refuse? 👀

Celebrating your 21st birthday is a pretty big event — some people go all out with caterers and seating arrangements, and guests come over for a huge celebration.

These birthday roasts aren’t the nicest, but they’re meant in the best way possible. Image: Depositphotos

But it all boils down to a big birthday roast for the celebrant — and no, we don’t mean the dinner kind. Birthday celebrants must be prepared to have all their embarrassing night-out stories and middle school blunders revealed to friends and family. 

This is on the newer side of Dutch birthday traditions, so don’t be surprised if you’re met with blank stares when asking an older person about the 21st birthday dinner. 

7. Call you Abraham or Sarah when you turn 50 years old

Are you turning 50? Well, hello, Abraham! It’s nice to meet you, Sarah! 

You might be wondering, “Who the heck is Abraham and Sarah?”

These oddly specific nicknames are a biblical reference that honours gaining wisdom from experience.

Today, this man becomes very, very wise. Image: Depositphotos

You are old enough to be “visited” by Abraham or Sarah by the time you’ve reached age 50, and so they impart you with some wisdom because they’re very old themselves. 

Along with turning 50, it’s very common that friends and family of the celebrant will set up funky inflatable Abrahams and Sarahs around their home or workplace, as well as funny posters so people can congratulate them. 

8. Bring your own celebratory birthday treats to the workplace

Sorry to break it to you — if you expect to be the one getting treated for your birthday, you might be in for some disappointment and culture shock.

In many cultures, your workplace will buy you a cake and maybe even a present for your birthday. In the Netherlands, birthday celebrants have to bring their own treats to share with their colleagues. 

Sorry to break it to you, but you’re probably not getting this kind of treatment at work for your birthday. 😬 Image: Depositphotos

Of course, it is your special day, but you’re expected to be generous towards other people. 

Generosity applies to other parts of celebrating your birthday, like serving everyone beer and cake at your birthday party (no, no one else is allowed to help you) and sometimes even paying for everyone’s meals if you invited them out for dinner. 

It seems a little counterintuitive, but a Dutch person’s birthday is the only day you will not find them being overwhelmingly stingy — as many stereotypes say. 

9. Keep birthday calendars in the toilet 

Okay, normally, a birthday calendar wouldn’t be so strange to keep. It’s just the fact that it’s in Dutchies’ toilets specifically that makes it just plain weird. 🤨

photo-of-person-on-toilet-and-dutch-toilet calendar-hanging-on-wall
We guess Dutchies just like to keep busy. 🤷🏻 Image: DutchReview

Do Dutchies expect to memorise birthdays when Mother Nature calls? Well, it seems like a pretty decent place to do so.

If you like to keep busy while doing your thing, browsing the birthday calendar is a convenient and casual read.

While it is very strange to internationals, we can’t help but feel like it’s kind of sentimental that they’re doing their business and thinking about all the birthdays that are coming up. How sweet! 💐

And there you have it! Birthdays are indeed a special celebration, and hopefully, you will know more about how Dutch people like to spend their birthdays (so you can be prepared for your next Dutch birthday party!)

Is there a Dutch birthday tradition we missed? What’s your favourite tradition listed here? Tell us what you think!

Feature Image:Depositphotos
Katrien Nivera 🇵🇭
Katrien Nivera 🇵🇭
Third culture kid Katrien has been working as a writer and editor at DutchReview for over two years, originally moving to the Netherlands as a tween. Equipped with a Bachelor’s in communication and media and a Master’s in political communication, she’s here to stay for her passion for writing, whether it’s current Dutch affairs, the energy market, or universities. Just like the Dutch, Katrien lives by her agenda and enjoys the occasional frietje met mayo — she just wishes she could grow tall, too.

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  1. nr, 1 is really not true. It seems to depend on the area but in my 43 years I never congratulated everybody on a birthday.

    I see this a lot on this site: a person has an experience in the NL and directly it is: this is typical Dutch!!!

    • Nope. Not bs. Maybe it depends a little where you live and vlaai might be more common in the southern provinces but when I go to birthdays (or celebrate my own) there’s either slagroomtaart, appeltaart or vlaai. Living in the province Gelderland I just as often find vlaai at the menu as slagroomtaart, maybe to the north it’s more that but vlaai is common enough. At my own birthday you won’t find slagroomtaart though because I find the taste bland and boring and at other birthdays if that’s all they’ve got I will only eat a very small part or even decline.

  2. nr 6. perhaps you are confusing The Netherlands with the USA as there is absolutely nothing that celebrates the age of 21. It is ridiculous,

    • No, it is a newer tradition to celebrate your 21st birthday with a 21 dinner, a huge multi-course dinner with all your friends and it’s almost mandatory that they roast you a little bit in their speech

    • In case you haven’t noticed, the Netherlands has adopted some American traditions in the last decade. I am 33 now and a big 21st birthday party wasn’t so common 12 years ago. But then again in the past we also didn’t have baby showers for example, and Halloween was there but not a big thing except for on television (we used to only buy sweets to give out with Sint Maarten in the past but these days if we don’t have sweets with Halloween kids leave our door empty handed and we don’t need to bother with Sint Maarten anymore because no one comes) and these have also been rising trends, blown over from the USA, so I wouldn’t be surprised if with Gen Z and Gen Alpha this 21st birthday celebration is a thing.

  3. I recall that when my Dutch aunt turned 50, my Dutch mom got a kind of flat cake/cookie in the shape of a huge “Sarah.” I loved the texture of the peculiar cake? I had never tasted before. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere since. Can anyone tell me where to find a Sarah cookie/cake? (I did find the recipe and see several molds on Etsy, but not the cake itself.) Thanks in advance for your assistance!

  4. My 16th birthday came while I was working in an office in Naarden. The two secretaries bought a small cake for me. They tied it on my upper arm with a ribbon. Then everyone in the office was invited to cut off a slice and eat it. The one who caused the cake to fall off was the winner. Strange, but caused lots of laughs.

  5. Our parents who are from the Netherlands use to make a “special decorated chair “ for the birthday person


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