Happy Birthday!

Posted by Marion de Groot on November 15, 2008
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I've often heard Dutch people say that we, the Dutch, don't have a true culture, don't have rituals. But when you pay close attention to what people do on the basic milestones in life (birth, birthday, marriage, death), you can see the rituals. It's interesting to compare these rituals with the equivalents abroad. I've been to quite some international birthday parties. Here's a comparison.

In Russia, I went to the birthday party of a friend of a friend. He turned 18, a special age in Russia. We skipped dinner before we went, and when we arrived, I knew why. The guy's parents had spent two days preparing all kinds of food, grilled chicken, salads, everything. But the parents weren't at the party; no, they left the house so their son could celebrate. The standard present was a bottle of vodka, and all bottles were consumed immediately. This eat-and-drink-all-you-can feast went on until early morning.

In Norway my Norwegian friend and I first went to the supermarket to buy our (alcoholic) drinks, before we went to the party. It was a dinner party. On the table were mainly salads. Everyone had brought a bag with their own drinks. Some people had a stack of cans next to their plate. You could see exactly what people were planning to drink that night. No sharing or exchanging of drinks. On another party, which was a barbecue party, everybody even brought their own meat! And not that you then share it with everyone, no, you eat what you bring. Because my friend didn't have much money, we brought a pack of 10 hotdog sausages, so we were eating just that all night. One girl had a plate full of slices of tomato and mozarella, right in front of her, with a twinkle of 'Mine. Mine!' in her eyes. I must add that meat and alcoholic drinks are very expensive in Norway, but still, sharing what you bring would be natural to me.

In Thailand, people originally don't celebrate their birthdays, although some people do now, because of western influence. On their birthday, they traditionally go 'tam bun' or 'do good'. From Buddhism they believe that you get credits for a better next life, every time you do something for others. So when my host sister had her birthday, we took a pickup truck full with clothing and food to a poor village, and gave it to the children there. I actually enjoyed this way of celebrating. When they do celebrate their birthday 'the western way', presents are given, but not unwrapped until after the party.

In Argentina, parties don't start until after midnight, and go on until 6 in the morning. The party I went to in Cordoba was held in the back yard of a students apartment. There was music, drinks and some snacks. People brought bottles of wine or Fernet (some alcoholic drink, to mix with coke) and these bottles were put on a central table. Everyone was dancing, especially the guys.

In China, we met in a restaurant for a friends birthday. We had a good dinner and drinks, and he paid the bill. Some presents were given and unwrapped. After dinner, we took a cab to a karaoke club, where we rented a room to sing some songs. A bottle of whiskey was ordered along with a bottle of green ice-tea, to mix. Later I found out that my friend's real birthday wasn't until the week after. He said it was common to celebrate your birthday before the actual date, but definitely not after.

Compared to these different party styles, I can very clearly distinguish the Dutch birthday ritual. On the average Dutch birthday party, we invite some friends over at home, on the first weekend day after the actual date, at around 9 pm. Guests are first offered coffee or tea and one slice of pie, and after that they are offered alcoholic drinks and small snacks like peanuts. People tend to just sit on the couch or around the table, and talk. Some soft music is playing on the background. Presents are given, unwrapped immediately and shown to everyone. When money is given, this is done in an envelope, and the receiver doesn't open it (or sneakpeeks into it).

My ideal birthday party would be a combination of these. There should be dinner and drinks, and people shouldn't sit on the couch all night. And of course it's always good to do something good for the society.

How are birthdays celebrated in your country? And what is your ideal birthday party like?

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