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How the Dutch Go Over-the-Top, Not Overboard, For Birthdays

Photograph by Getty Images

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.

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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 chair.

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.

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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 children's experiences.

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 that right.

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Photo by Dennis van Zuijlekom

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