Yesterday, my oldest child turned 5, which was a really
big deal for him. We've always celebrated his birthday, of course, but this
year he had a whole new level of awareness about it. He not only looked forward
to having a party but was very specific about how, when and with whom he
would celebrate, what his cake would look like and even who would sit next to whom.
Before my son started school, we typically held on to our
own Irish and American traditions in how we celebrate holidays and birthdays. Since our kids are growing up in the Netherlands, we are embracing more fully the Dutch traditions.
Which has made everything
more interesting to navigate.
It's not that Irish and Americans don't think birthdays are
important, of course, but in the Netherlands they are a really, really big deal. By that, I don't mean people spend thousands of euro on
elaborate gifts and parties. It's actually kind of the opposite. My non-Dutch friends learned this when their 4-year-old daughter was invited to the birthday party of
a school friend. The birthday girl's parents told my friends they had spent too much
on a gift.
It wasn't rude; it was actually really thoughtful. They
reminded my friends that their daughter would be attending many parties
throughout the year, and they shouldn't go broke over it.
Here, birthdays are not just about celebrating the person
whose birthday it is but also the people closest to that person. So, for
example, if you attend a Dutch birthday party, it is customary to shake the
hand of or give three "air kisses" to the mother, the father, the spouse, the
friends and the neighbors and also congratulate them with, "Gefeliciteerd met jouw [insert son, daughter, etc.]!"
Throughout the day yesterday, I received text messages from friends, colleagues and parents from the school congratulating me on my son.
At first, it seemed odd to me that anyone other than the
actual birthday person should be congratulated, but it emphasizes the value of
everyone's connection to the person being celebrated. Many Dutch
traditions emphasize community in this way.
Therefore, knowing everyone's birthday is vital. All of my
Dutch friends have, at some point, asked me
when my birthday is. Although most of us now rely on Facebook to keep us informed
of such things, the Dutch have a different system: the birthday calendar.
The calendar has only months and days (no years), so it can
be used indefinitely. The name and often the birth year of friends, family and
neighbors are noted so that no birthday ever goes unacknowledged. And to ensure
the calendar is never lost and that you remember to look at it, it almost
always hangs in front of your face on the inside of the bathroom door.
Parties (for adults or children) are usually hosted by the
birthday person rather than thrown for you at someone else's expense. You trakteer—it's your treat. If you work in
an office, you bring a cake for everyone. At school, children not only bring
treats for their classmates, but they walk around to each classroom in the
school, offering goodies to the teachers and sometimes the students.
For my son's big day, I was invited to come to the classroom
to be part of his little party that took place about 20 minutes before the end
of the day. I didn't know what to expect, other than maybe everyone would
sing "Lang zal hij leven" (long shall
he live—the Dutch version of happy birthday) and that he would distribute his traktaties (little treats). But it was a
little more elaborate than that.
My son wore a construction paper hat that was adorned
with tissue paper flowers and a picture of a giraffe. He sat in a vibrantly painted and decorated throne-like
Instruments of the kindergarten variety were distributed
and, as my son now stood on his throne, 20 children held hands and walked
in a circle around him, singing "Happy Birthday" not only in Dutch, but in
English and then in French.
More than the school parties I recall from childhood, this was an extravaganza.
I was reminded of the closing scene of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," when all the Whos in Whoville
joined hands in a circle and sang to a twinkling star.
Then there was a song about what he wanted to be when he
grew up, and another during which two children were selected to hold onto his
ears and gently tug his head back and forth, singing "De jarige job gaat nooit verloren; Trek 'm aan z'n oren, van achter en
van voren." ("The birthday boy is never lost; pull him on his ears, from
behind and from the front." I asked a friend to explain this, but she could
only offer that it's a strange song.)
They sang for a good 15 minutes, after which my son's
teacher produced a toy cake with a real candle that she lit with several
matches to the delight of everyone.
More than the school parties I recall from childhood, this
was an extravaganza. My son was delighted, needless to say.
Part of the fun of parenting is getting to relive your
childhood traditions through the eyes of your kids. But as expat parents, we
have the additional fun of learning new traditions that are also shaping our
And it forces me to consider the meaning behind the
traditions we form. Throughout the day yesterday, I received text messages from
friends, colleagues and parents from the school congratulating me on my son. It made me feel proud to be his mom and grateful that my little guy came
into my life five years ago. Birthdays really are a big deal—the Dutch have