Here are 10 of the most unique Dutch traditions, and those which incoming or newly arrived expats in Holland should be aware of…
North Americans often greet friends they haven’t seen in a while with a peck on the cheek. The British do this as well but it is done with a kiss on both cheeks. But the Dutch take it to another level with a 3-cheek kiss. This tricky left-right-left maneuver supposedly started in the southern part of the Netherlands and spread north, to the point that today it is has become the standard for which Dutch friends and family greet each other.
For the Dutch, remembering and celebrating a birthday is an important event, not just the individual but his family as well. The way they keep track of all these birthdays is with a ‘verjaardagskalender’ (birthday calendar). Unlike a standard wall calendar that is replaced every year, the birthday calendar stays the same year in and year out. There is a page for each month and the days in that month. No year or day of the week. Also interesting is that in many home, this birthday calendar hangs in the bathroom, which ensures it will always get seen!
BUYING YOUR OWN BIRTHDAY CAKE
People in other countries may be accustomed to work colleagues buying them a cake when it is their birthday. In Holland, the situation is very different. Here the person whose birthday it is is expected to bring their own cake (or other treat like cookies or candy) to work so that colleagues can share in the celebration. And one can expect looks of surprise should they forget to pickup something. Weird, right?
The Dutch are obsessed with scheduling their time, not just in the work environment but in their private lives as well. Every activity, including going to the gym and food shopping, is jotted down in an agenda. Rarely will you see a Dutch person’s agenda that has wide open spaces. Don’t be surprised when making plans with a Dutch friend that their first availability is several weeks down the road. And new expats in the Netherlands should be aware that it is never a good idea to pop by a Dutch person’s house unannounced and expect to be welcomed in.
ABRAHAM & SARAH
This Dutch tradition is specific to celebrating a 50th birthday; Abraham is the theme for men, and Sarah the theme for women. The elderly characters are from the Bible and were revered for their knowledge of life. It follows that someone turning 50 would also have extensive life experience and would ‘see Abraham’ (or Sarah). BUT here’s the wild part…on the night before the person’s birthday, a giant inflatable Abraham (or Sarah) is placed in front of the person’s house to ensure they do ‘see Abraham’ (or Sarah) on their 50th. Sometimes the blowup figures are as big as the house itself!
EATING RAW HERRING
Eating fish is not unusual; billions of people around the world do it all the time. But the majority of them eat the fish after it has been cooked. Of course, there are also those who eat raw fish in the form of sushi, with little pieces fish being consumed a mouthful at a time…with chopsticks. The Dutch, on the other hand, turn eating fish into a totally different ballgame. In mid-June a day comes along called Vlaggetjesdag, which celebrates the first catch of herring of the season. On this day, and the weeks that follow, you can catch many a Dutch person dangling an entire raw herring over their mouth before dropping it straight in. Guess that’s so they don’t actually have to do any chewing, just the thought of which makes many an expat want to hurl!
Here’s another unique Dutch tradition, putting sprinkles on bread for breakfast. That’s right, not jam which one might expect, but sprinkles… dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate and even rainbow! Don’t think that ‘hagelslag’ is strictly for children. Adults can be seen eating it too!
KEEPING THE BLINDS OPEN
The Dutch believe in keeping their ground floor blinds and curtains open pretty much all the time, because it shows they have nothing to hide. At the same time, it is considered inappropriate to stop and look through someone else’s window. For a new expat in Holland, such lack of privacy can seem unnerving. And yet closing one’s blinds will usually lead to rumors that the resident has something to hide. The good news is that most DIY stores sell translucent window film (raamfolie) which will distort a passersby view while still allowing the resident to remain on good terms with neighbors.
SCHOOL BAGS ON FLAGPOLES
The first time an expat sees a school bag hanging from a flagpole with the Dutch flag on it, they are likely to do a double take because of how strange it looks. Then you might think ‘I bet the people who own the house don’t even know some school kid vandalized their flagpole by tossing their knapsack on it.’ But then you come across the same scene on the next block and then the next and then you ask yourself what is going on? Well, as it turns out, what you are seeing is a Dutch tradition which takes place every June on the day that all high school seniors get their final exam grades and find out if they will be graduating. If the news is positive, the successful student (or happy parents) hang out the Dutch flag and attach to it the student’s schoolbag. This signals a positive result to friends and neighbors who pass by the house.
This Dutch tradition takes a while for expats to comprehend, especially those from places where Christmas is a big celebration and strongly associated with the mythical character Santa Claus (or Father Christmas).
In 1850 Dutch author Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book featuring the historical figure Saint Nicholas (Sint Nikolaas) in a modern (for that time) setting. The book was hugely successful and the Sinterklaas tale is widely assumed to have inspired similar children’s characters/stories in other countries, including Santa Claus (U.S.A.) and Father Christmas (Great Britain).
What makes this tradition so unique is that Sinterklaas is not celebrated at Christmas, but rather on the eve of St Nicholas’ feast day (December 6th). And there-in lies the problem expats commonly have with the Sinterklaas celebration, that the character represents Saint Nicholas just like Santa and Father Christmas, but has come and gone weeks before Christmas. More confusing still is when decorations go up later in December featuring Santa Claus, except he’s not called that in Holland. The jolly fat man in the red suit with the reindeer is referred to as… the Kerstman (Christmas man).