The Dutch love to mark a special occasion. What’s more, for each one, they have a uniquely ‘Dutch way’ of celebrating. For expats, it can be great fun to learn about and partake in these cultural traditions. However, it is important to know a bit about them too. There are some very specific forms of etiquette in the Netherlands, and you risk offending your Dutch neighbors if you do not adhere to them. To find out what’s expected of you, look no further. We will take you through some common special occasions, and explain how the Dutch like them done! 

Celebrate Birthdays the Dutch way

The Dutch word for Birthday is: ‘verjaardag’ . In the Netherlands, nearly everyone celebrates their birthday with great enthusiasm. The festivities surrounding this special occasion usually go something like this:

  • Family and friends often come to visit the birthday boy or girl at home
  • Or, they might telephone them or send a birthday card 
  • It is considered rather anti-social for a person to ignore his or her own birthday 
  • Compared to American custom, for example, it is up to the person celebrating his or her Birthday to make plans and host festivities for themselves
  • They often invite friends and family to their home, and cater for them 
  • In the work place, it is customary to bring in pastries for colleagues to enjoy with their coffee
  • Likewise, children take treats to school for all their classmates

Tip

Birthday Calendars in NL

The Dutch have a special way of remembering Birthdays: Birthday calendars. They are very popular in the Netherlands: 

  • They are called: ‘verjaardagskalender’ in Dutch 
  • Usually they are hung in the bathroom 
  • This helps people keep track of when they need to pay visits or send cards
  • A word of advice: don’t overlook a Dutch person’s birthday!
  • Such forgetfulness borders on insolence in the Netherlands
  • In Holland, a Birthday is a special occasion that simply must be celebrated the Dutch way!

Birthday Congratulations in NL

One very unique Dutch custom is that of ‘congratulating’. You must not only ‘congratulate’ the person having their birthday, but his or her relatives, friends and even neighbors as well! 

  • This can seem very strange to expats, but try to remember to do it
  • On the birthday of your brother-in-law, say ‘Congratulations!’, or: ‘Gefeliciteerd! To anyone connected to him
  • Equally, don’t be caught off guard if someone congratulates you on your spouse’s or child’s birthday

Weddings in NL

Strangely enough, a Church ceremony alone does not constitute a legal marriage in Holland. Take a look at our page on: Getting Married in the Netherlands, to learn more about this. For now, here’s a summary of what a wedding tends to look like in NL:

  • A civil ceremony is often conducted in the town hall by a local official
  • For a couple to be officially married, this is a legal requirement
  • Hence, a Dutch wedding will often consist of both a civil and a church wedding in one day
  • Following the ceremony, celebrations may take place in three parts: a ‘receptie’, a ‘diner’ and a ‘feest’ . Or, in English: a reception, a dinner and a party 
  • It might seem strange, but it is quite common to invite different people to different parts of the celebrations in NL
  • Family and very close friends are more likely to be invited to every event 
  • Colleagues and neighbors, on the other hand, may be invited to the ‘receptie’ only

Wedding Anniversaries in NL

Occasionally, the Dutch will succumb to the temptation to celebrate a wedding anniversary, with a large group of friends and family. However, marking this special occasion is not a set-in-stone tradition in the Netherlands:

  • Usually, an anniversary will only be celebrated on the 12th, 25th or 50th year of a couple’s marriage 
  • The appropriate gift for such an occasion might be flowers, wine or a joint present from a group of friends, colleagues or relatives
  • It is common to be approached by one of the couple’s children, or another family friend, with a letter inviting you to sing a song, give a speech or contribute to a joint gift

How the Dutch celebrate Births

That pink or blue balloon-decked stork in your neighbors’ garden means that a new baby boy or girl has arrived! Here is the protocol:

  • In the Netherlands, it is customary for friends, colleagues and relatives to telephone the new parents 
  • They usually make an appointment to come and admire the little darling
  • They will be expected to bring along a gift, like a toy or an item of clothing
  • Visitors are served tea or coffee and ‘beschuit met muisjes’. This translates as ‘biscuits with mice’. It refers to rusks or crisp-bread, covered with sugared aniseeds, which resemble mice
  • Pink muisjes are served for a baby girl and blue for a boy

Gifts, Cards and party etiquette in NL

Gifts in NL

In the Netherlands, people routinely give one another gifts. There is a Dutch way of doing this too:

  • They are bestowed on special occasions, such as: birthdays, parties, weddings, anniversaries and graduations 
  • However, it is also common to bring a gift if you visit someone’s home for a meal
  • Gifts are generally small and understated, unless they are for a family member
  • Bouquets of flowers, bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates are common presents 
  • In fact, a group of friends might even put their money together and buy what is considered a ‘larger gift’ such as a book or a CD

Cards in NL

  • Greeting cards are frequently used to honor occasions too
  • In addition to birthday cards, they might offer congratulations on an achievement like passing an exam, moving to a new home or taking an early retirement
  • It is ordinary for holidaymakers to send postcards to family and friends back home
  • Many Dutch people also send them as thank-you cards after, for example, enjoying a get-together at a friend’s house

Tip

  • A Dutch person generally presents a gift as soon as he sees its recipient
  • The recipient generally opens the gift immediately too
  • Not doing this is considered impolite
  • Don’t expect effusive thanks for a gift you have given, this is just not the Dutch way
  • The Dutch are not generally known for their ebullience
  • Equally, over-enthusiasm can be viewed as pretentious behavior. So try not to be too enthusiastic in your thanks!

Turning Fifty in NL

A 50th birthday is a special occasion that the Dutch really love to commemorate. What’s more, they have a very unique way of honoring this milestone!

  • The person who has reached 50 is referred to as ‘Abraham’ if he is a man, or ‘Sarah’ if she is a woman
  • These names and this tradition originate from the bible
  • It is a reference to when Jesus said that Abraham had ‘seen’ the day he was to become the Messiah
  • Skeptics thought that Jesus was claiming to have actually ‘met’ Abraham
  • They remarked sarcastically: ‘Not yet 50 years of age, but already you have met Abraham!’

Embracing Old Age in NL

  • Abraham and Sarah were both very long-lived. So, reaching the age of 50 means that you are considered to be a wise old soul
  • A life-size doll, with a big ’50’ sign hung from its neck, is often placed in front of the celebrant’s house
  • Some cultures tend to hide or feel ashamed of the aging process
  • The Dutch, however, feel proud to reach a ripe old age 
  • In their view, the more years the merrier!

Death in NL

There is a Dutch decorum when someone passes away in the Netherlands too:

  • The family of the deceased usually send out cards
  • Typically, they have grey borders, which symbolically announce the death
  • An obituary may be published in the newspaper too
  • When you hear about the death of a friend, or the dear one of a friend, a short note of condolence is greatly appreciated 
  • If you were close to the deceased, you can visit his or her family to pay your respects, or give them a short phone call 
  • However, be sure not visit without warning 
  • Sometimes, the family will send out an announcement, explaining that they would rather not be disturbed before the funeral 
  • It will say something like: ‘we would prefer no visitors’. In Dutch, this translates as: ‘bezoek is niet gewenst’

Funerals in NL

  • Traditionally, a Dutch funeral service will be held in a funeral home, as opposed to a Church
  • Depending on how close you were to the deceased, you could have a flower arrangement delivered by a florist, to be placed on the casket
  • A ribbon or card is usually attached to the coffin too, with a few words of farewell and the names of the sender(s)
  • Other families might prefer you to donate money to a charity, rather than give flowers 
  • They will tell you what their charity of choice is 
  • After the funeral, a reception is held
  • Here, you will be given the opportunity to pay your condolences to the surviving family in person
  • Sometimes, a family will send out a notice, informing acquaintances that the funeral will be held for the immediate family only: ‘de overledene wordt in besloten kring begraven’

Useful links

  • Intercultural Professionals: Intercultural Management and communication programs for foreign employees and their partners who have moved to the Netherlands
  • ACCESS: Helping international settle in the Netherlands

Recommended reading

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