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

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.

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

People-gather-to-celebrate-their-friends-birthday-with-a-cake
You can bet every single one of these guests said “gefeliciteerd” to each other when they arrived at the party. Image: gstockstudio/Depositphotos

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 judgement 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?

Person-texting-another-person-to-congratulate-them
Yeah — Dutchies are the kind of people to greet you for the most random birthdays they remember. Image: DutchReview/Supplied

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

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!

people-sitting-in-a-circle=
Sometimes these parties feel a little staged with the awkward circle. Image: depositedhar/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. 

Dutch-limburgsevlaai-a-type-of-tart-with-different-fillings
Cake is the iconic birthday treat — but who could resist these delicious looking Limburgse vlaai? Image: YAYimage/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 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. 😬

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

Person-handing-their-friend-a-birthday-present
Opening birthday presents is an affair for the whole party. Image: DGLimages/Depositphotos

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, seating arrangements, and guests come over for a huge celebration.

Man-makes-a-toast-for-his-friends-birthday
These roasts aren’t the nicest, but they’re meant in the best way possible. Image: LustreArt/Depositphotos

But it all boils down to a big birthday roast for the celebrant — and no, we don’t mean 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 are Abraham and Sarah?”

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

Family-celebrates-their-dads-birthday-in-the-netherlands
Today, this man becomes very, very wise. Image: DGLimages/Depositphotos

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

8. Bring your own celebratory 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. 

People-gathered-to-celebrate-a-womans-birthday-as-she-blows-out-the-candles
Sorry to break it to you, but you’re probably not getting this kind of treatment at work for your birthday. 😬 Image: macniak/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 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 — like 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 toilet calendar hanging on wall
We guess Dutchies just like to keep busy. 🤷🏻 Image: DutchReview/Supplied

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 know more about how Dutch people like to spend their birthdays (and 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!

Featured Image: dmvasilenko/Depositphotos

Katrien Nivera 🇵🇭
Katrien Nivera 🇵🇭
Third culture kid Katrien is a Philippine native living in the Netherlands to finish her master's degree in political communication. You can usually find her trying to organize everything on Notion and the sticky notes app, otherwise, she’s nose-deep in a good book or obsessing over film soundtracks and video games.

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4 COMMENTS

  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!!!

  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

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