By Dave Mangene
At a row house, in a suburb, which is every row house, in every suburb, me and my brother stand at a door, about to ring the bell.
We’ve been invited to Roel’s birthday party. We don’t know Roel very well, but we’re young and thirsty to party, so we’re here. We met Roel just a few weeks before, at a bar on Stratumseind: we the two Americans visiting for the summer and he the outgoing Dutch kid who spoke just a few words of English but made every one of them count.
“You come on my birthday party?” Roel asked, one evening at Cafe van Mol, after we’d spent several hours chugging white beer.
“Come on what?!” my brother asked, ruthlessly slamming the remains of his Hoegaarden.
The double entendre was lost on our Roel, so he asked a second time:
“Yes! I am Saturday jarig. I am becoming 18 years. You want to coming on my party?”
Right. This was an invitation.
“Sure. Why not?” we said, ordering another round and slapping backs with our new BFF. We would be in town for 3 months and were looking to meet as many people as we could, especially happy-go-lucky fellows like Roel. He also seemed to know every impossibly long legged, blond, 17 year old Dutch girl that walked into the bar. He greeted them all, kissing the three Dutch kisses, while the perma-smile never seemed to leave his jovial, potato eater face. We stayed at the bar until the wee hours, dancing and drinking with Roel and friends, figuring a birthday party at his house would indeed be a festive occasion.
Several nights later, we stand at the door and ring the bell.
The door opens.
It is not Roel, but instead a matronly woman who speaks Dutch. Her ample cheeks and round nose are a give-away: this must be Roel’s mother. She welcomes us in with a turn of her body, continuing to cluck away at us, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we have no clue what she’s talking about.
She leads us through a narrow hallway, still no sign of Roel, and opens a door to the living room. Every square centimeter of space has been covered by chairs, which have been arranged into a large circle. All but two of the chairs are taken, both of which are located at the far end of the circle. The person closest to us, a pot bellied man of at least 65, raises his hand as if to shake ours. I instinctively offer my hand, thinking he is probably introducing himself. Just as I’m saying my name, he blurts a quick, unintelligible, monstrosity of a word (which I now know as ‘gefeliciteerd’ or ‘congratulations’, the customary Dutch birthday greeting). He says the word and shakes my hand. The next person in the circle does the same, drawing us in that direction and, consequently, around the rest of the circle where the same exchange repeats itself with every person. Surprisingly, everyone in the circle is sporting the cheeks and bulbous nose of our still absent friend, Roel. This room is obviously filled with his family: uncles, aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Where are all the blond girls? Hell, where are the people under 30 years old? Is this even the right house?
We shake endless hands, forever nodding as if to understand, and finally reach our seats. We sit down, wringing our hands, and look around.
Scott is seated next to a woman who’s hearing aid indicates that this won’t be a lively conversation. Next to me is a precocious six year old, ranting in Dutch, and trying to pluck the Boston Red Sox cap from my head.
As soon as our butts hit the chair, Roel’s mother brings us a slice of cake and a cup of coffee, setting them on the table in front of us.
Coffee? It’s 4:00 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
Got anything stronger?
We reach to pick up the cake, a bewildered look still covering both our faces. We have clearly walked into a social situation rife with centuries of unwritten codes, when Roel mercifully bursts into the room.
“HALLO, MY AMERICAN FRIENDS!” Roel says, friendly as a golden retriever. He walks straight to us and shakes our hands rather formally.
“Happy Birthday Roel.” we say, all eyes upon us as we speak out loud for the first time since entering the room.
“You come outside to the garden, ja?” Roel asks.
“YES!!!” we reply in harmony, so glad to be freed of this living room. We follow Roel outside.
He leads us through a sliding glass door. We have every intention of believing that Roel is now leading us to the real party.
Turning the corner into the garden, we are startled to see lawn chairs arranged into a circle, a carbon copy of the scene in the living room, only the garden people are teenagers like us. I recognize several faces from Cafe van Mol. As Roel moves us closer to the circle, the first hand is extended and here comes the whole ritual all over again.
So this is the party, and we sit in our lawn chairs, politely sipping Bavaria beer until nightfall.
The party at Roel’s was by no means a one-off. In the 21 years I have lived in the Netherlands, I’ve been to several ‘sit down birthday parties’, though I have never quite warmed to this tradition. To me it feels stilted and formulaic: the circle of chairs. The coffee and cake. The handshakes and obligatory kisses. The cheese and sausage, followed by the beer.
Interestingly, many Dutch people don’t really like the sit down parties even though it’s their own tradition. Funny thing about traditions – they have a way of sticking around whether we like it or not. It’s a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ kind of thing. So, despite finding the sit down party a touch boring, they continue anyway. Some Dutch people boycott the tradition by insisting that nobody sit down at their party. They remove the chairs, making sure no one has a place to sit. They place ‘bar tabels’ (statafels) around the room ensuring that everyone will stand up for the duration of the party.
Where does the tradition of the ‘sit down party’ come from?
There is no real consensus among the Dutch people I asked, but I do have my own theory.
In Holland, the host serves and the guest receives. Guests are not encouraged to serve themselves. It’s much easier for a host to serve guests if everybody is seated in a neat circle, near a table.
A second possible reason is the Dutch love of efficiency. By bringing all family members together at one time, and putting them next to each other in a circle, an entire family visit is ‘taken care of’ in one fell swoop. You know, kill two birds with one stone, and all that. Birthday party and family visit – whappaa! Klaar is Kees.
Birthday parties in the United States are not such an exact science. Some adults have parties. Many don’t. Birthdays in America seem to be celebrated more heartily at the milestone ages of 16, 21, 30, 40, 50 etc. Sweet sixteen culture, as it were. One truth that exists about birthday celebrations in the United States is that the ‘birthday boy’ gets spoiled by friends and family. In other words, if it’s your birthday, you simply sit back and receive gifts, cake, hugs, and attention. This, in contrast to Holland, where the birthday boy is the host and therefore the provider (although he does receive gifts).
If you do live in Holland, but you aren’t Dutch, take this word of advice: if you’re invited to a Dutch person’s birthday, and you say ‘yes’, you must go. Don’t bail out, as that is a grave cultural insult. Birthdays are sacred here – consider yourself warned.
In time, the sit down party will most likely disappear. Although, some traditions do die hard…