Celebrating -- The Dutch Way

Happy Birthday -- Dutch Style

by Lyn R.
Tulip Talk, February 1993*

Birthdays are very important occasions in Holland. Not just for children, but for men and women too--no matter what their age or nationality may be.

The Dutch have an admirable attitude toward growing old. They even have  congratulatory cards and special gifts for individuals who hit the half century mark and have "seen Abraham." That time-honored phrase can be traced back to the Bible, the Book of John, chapter 8, verse 57: "Then said the Jews unto him, 'Thou are not yet fifty years old and hast thou seen Abraham?"' 

Abraham (originally known as Abram) refers to an Old Testament patriarch of the Hebrews who was 100 years old when he begot Isaac; his wife Sarah was 90 (Genesis, chapter 17, verse 17). 

In Holland, someone who has seen Abraham is presumed to have gained wisdom through experience. Therefore, the traditional 50th-birthday gift is a super size, spice-flavored speculaas (cookie) called an "Abraham." But you needn't be Jewish to give or receive one. 

Measuring some 20 inches by 10 inches, the cookie is made in the form of a bearded gentlemen who represents wisdom. His features, floor-length robe and skull cap, are decorated with almonds, candied fruit and white icing. Recently, the masculine connotation of that gift has been challenged by equality-conscious bakers who are producing Sarah speculaas for women with five decades to their credit. 

Dutch customs and traditional costumes vary from one community to another. In the area of Hoorn and Enkhuizen, it has been the tradition for hundreds of years to present an Abraham to someone who is celebrating his or her 50th birthday. In olden times, bread dough was used to make the figure, but over the years spices and edible trimmings were added. Nowadays, some residents of Hoorn receive two Abrahams  during their half-century celebrations: the usual baked cookie and another made of fish. 

In Holland, everyone's birthday (verjaardag) calls for congratulations all around. Fathers as well as mothers and even grandparents receive felicitations of their offspring. A wife is congratulated on the verjaardag of her husband, and vice versa. Relatives and friends who are unable to pay their respects in person generally phone, send a card or flowers (usually displayed with the message and name of the sender attached). Colleagues at work drop by to shake hands with the birthday celebrant and offer best wishes. Such consideration surprises, but delights, newcomers from other lands -- even people who claim to have stopped counting the years long ago. Keeping track of when to congratulate whom is made easier by the birthday calendar which is found in most Dutch homes...usually hanging near the toilet because "that's a place everyone  visits." Guests are not expected to add their names to the listed dates: only the host or hostess makes that decision. 

A Dutch child's birthday celebration begins at the breakfast table, where he or she is seated in a chair decorated with colored streamers and paper flowers. Students take candies, cookies or (if cavity conscious) pieces of cheese to school on their verjaardag to share with classmates and teachers. Youngsters are also given birthday parties with candle-crowned cakes and multi-hued paper chains festooning the room. 

It is customary, however, for Dutch adults to arrange for their own birthday celebrations. A typist stops at one of the many fine pastry shops and picks up freshly baked, highly caloric cakes to serve at the office as her verjaardag treat. Another batch has been ordered that evening when she is expected to be at home. Dutch men and women prepare for their birthday parties at home on a guesstimate basis: no one can be sure how many people will show up. Drinks, snacks and various brands of cigarettes are purchased. Chairs are arranged in a large circle. Flower vases are assembled in one place, discreetly out of sight (as though the host or hostess didn't know how many of the guests will bring fresh bouquets).

After presenting a bunch of flowers or a gift and, of course, congratulations to the celebrant, each new arrival goes around the circle of guests shaking hands with everyone--women and children as well as men--and introducing themselves to those they haven't met. Kisses on both cheeks are usually exchanged by women, or men and women, who are related or well acquainted. Every person, whatever their age or gender, stands up for such greeting and meeting ceremonies. And there is another bout of bobbing up and down, handshaking and kissing each time anyone departs. 

Sometimes all the birthday guests arrive at once, when the big day has barely begun. Suspecting that might happen, the celebrant-to-be makes all the preparations the evening before and, if possible, goes to bed early. At about 11:30 p.m., friends and relatives begin to gather very quietly outside the darkened house. At one second after midnight, they ring the doorbell and the surprised birthday party giver invites everyone in.

If you are one of those transplanted foreigners who stopped counting the years long ago, you can, of course, drop out of sight. But people who usually disappear during the day of their birth may be phoned by Dutch friends shortly after midnight on that natal date. Impolite? No, just persistent. After all, the reluctant celebrator has probably adapted to every other Dutch tradition.

*Tulip Talk is the copyrighted publication of the American Women's Club of Amsterdam (AWCA). Prior written permission of the AWCA is required to reproduce these articles.