One of the things that differ between Sweden and the Netherlands is the way that birthdays are celebrated. In the Netherlands, when it’s your birthday, you bring treats to the office (or school) to share with your colleagues. Mostly people bring cake or some pastry. And in some places your colleagues even buy you gifts. In Sweden, this is very different. First of all, people don’t tell others when their birthday is. Not even on the day of their birthday. Because of Facebook, this has changed a little, but birthdays at the office a more of a non-thing. So no cake by the birthday boy/girl. Sometimes, but only sometimes people at the office might spontaneously sing you a birthday song.

But there is more. In the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of other family members. When I had just moved to Sweden, I asked one of my colleagues if he had any plans for the weekend. “I’m going up north to visit my parents, because my mother is celebrating her birthday this weekend.”. “Congratulations!”, I said, but he gave me a look as if he saw water burning. “Emh.. what?”, he responded. “It’s not my birthday, so you shouldn’t congratulate me..”. I had never thought about this, but in the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of others. It’s rather normal and maybe even expected. “Thank you”, is the obvious reply. But this got me thinking a bit. In the Netherlands, we don’t only congratulate much, we over-congratulate. Often at parties, people congratulate other guests with the birthday of the person organizing the party; even to strangers: “Hi, I’m Wouter, congratulations!”. I’ve always felt quite uncomfortable with this. Not so much the congratulation part, but the fact that it’s customary to introduce yourself to everybody in the room. Some Dutch parties are celebrated by people sitting in a big circle in a living room and those often call for mandatory circular introductions. My introduction is often “Hi I’m Wouter”, accompanied by a weak hand wave to everybody after coming into the room, instead of shaking everybody’s hand.

On that note, circular parties are the worst. I truly hate them. As I wrote, people sit in a large circle in the living room. The host keeps asking people what they want to drink and keeps running back and forth to the kitchen to get beer, coffee or something else, together with cake. Since everybody sits in a circle, there is often only one person talking at a time and most often, it’s the same person. The most awkward and uncomfortable moment comes when the conversation drops dead and no one says anything anymore. The first person that can’t stand the awkward silence any longer will then try to restart the conversation by uttering “dus..” (so.. in English) and failing to do so, until someone else comes up with a forced question to any of the others in the circle, like “Hey Jan, I heard you went to Greece on holiday. How was your holiday?”.

Once I got invited to a birthday that I knew was going to be circular. Me and a friend drove there and in the car we discussed our shared hatred for parties like this. We agreed that when the awkward silence had come and someone would utter the highly anticipated “dus..” we would leave. And so we did. Attendance: 45 minutes.

Update: I forgot to mention how birthdays are celebrated in Sweden

On the other hand, birthdays in Sweden are mostly celebrated by having all guests in the living room and people sit or stand wherever they want. The host provides some food, cake, snacks and soft drinks, but everybody brings their own alcoholic drinks. The drinks are shared though. This is another difference and my guess is that this is mainly done because alcohol is pretty expensive. In the Netherlands, the host visits the supermarket and buys a few crates of beer (typically containing 24 bottles), but in Sweden, almost nobody buys whole crates at System Bolaget (the state-run liquor store), simply because it’s way too expensive. I quite clearly remember my first birthday party, where I showed up with a small gift, but forgot to bring (my own) beer. Luckily people understood that I was just a stupid foreigner and helped out by sharing.

The way Swedes deal with alcohol is a story by itself, so to be continued..


3 thoughts on “Birthdays

  1. So, now I’m interested, how are birthday parties in Sweden? More fun? Keggers? Spread out over wide areas? I too dislike Dutch birthday traditions, especially family birthdays, although they sometimes work like reunions which is somewhat ok 🙂

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