Some immigrants to the Netherlands have been living here for many years, speak the language without accent, have lots of Dutch friends, and still they're Outsiders. Their birthday parties aren't standards compliant.

Personally I'm Dutch, but I hate the never-changing ritual of the birthday party. I hope I'm in the minority; if everyone feels like this the tragedy is complete. But if you ever find yourself in the Netherlands, with an invitation to someone's birthday party, here is what you can expect, and are supposed to do.

Setting: a room with a number of chairs, placed in a rough circle, space permitting, usually around low tables, on which drinks are placed. Number of chairs equals number of expected guests. The time can be freely chosen, from 10am to in the evening, but standard is probably around 8pm for the first guests to arrive. 10am parties aren't any different, except that choosing an alcoholic drink in step 6 is unacceptable in the morning.

Then, you're an arriving guest, and this is what you do. Remember, these are laws, not suggestions:

  1. Ring the doorbell. Door will be opened by the guest of honour.
  2. Congratulate her/him, saying "gefeliciteerd" and kissing her three times on the cheek, if she's a woman.
  3. Enter the room with the chairs and, and this is important, go and congratulate everybody who is already there with the birthday. You go around the circle, people already sitting there stand up, you shake hands, say "gefeliciteerd", and if there's a female involved, kiss three times on the cheek. This means that if you come early, you'll have to stand up for every new arrival, and if you come late it'll be a lot of work to go visit everybody.
  4. Pick a seat and sit down. Only stand up for new arrivals, to shake hands.
  5. You will be asked if you want coffee, you say yes. You will drink 1 (one) cup of coffee, which will be accompanied by 1 (one) piece of pie (taart).
  6. A little after finishing your coffee, you are asked what you want to drink, this time for real. Coffee is allowed only if you arrived early and drank fast, i.e., if there are other people still being handed coffee as well. A third coffee is right out. Also, do not expect to score a second piece of pie this way. Otherwise, pick something else. Usually alcohol is only acceptable after, say, 3pm.
  7. By the time almost everybody has arrived, presents are brought forth, and people give it to the guest of honour in turns.
  8. Late-comers are embarassed as they arrive after step 7, so they have to give their present at an awkward moment (i.e., outside of step 7).
  9. Now, this is the "party". You will be given new drinks, and occasional snacks. You're stuck with the seat you picked, no moving around. If you have people you know nearby, you can talk with them, otherwise you'll have to make do with awkward smalltalk with strangers around you. This is easier if alcohol is involved, of course, but you're not supposed to get drunk.
  10. After three or four hours, someone will decide to go home. Not long after, so does everyone else.

Corollary: if you are the guest of honour, you have to spend all your time waiting on people, making coffee, opening doors, handing around snacks, doing the dishes, etc. Especially if you're female.

Corollary 2: Due to logistical restrictions (number of chairs, number of people that guest of honour can serve, etc) birthday parties are limited to at most 20-25 guests. Including parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc...

To be fair, some people have found out about the upgrade to the standard birthday party protocol, and they place a table with drinks and snacks outside the circle, and let guests serve themselves. This way you can actually leave your chair, move around a bit, talk to different people, etc. Sometimes even the guest of honour has time to sit down using this system. We have to be happy with what we can get.

And that's about it. Elsewhere in the world, "party" means something exciting.

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