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Getting used to Dutch customs


Ever find yourself confused about the seemingly unspoken Dutch customs surrounding birthdays and other social gatherings? You’re not alone! Delft MaMa Sandra Treviño, hailing from Mexico, shares with us some of her experiences navigating some of these Dutch customs alongside her two kids.

You may have noticed that people in the Netherlands kiss three times on the cheek when they greet each other, a custom that I found very awkward at the beginning, coming from a country where we only kiss once. After a decade, I am now the one diving in for the extra two kisses. Many customs are easily visible, like all those backpacks hanging from flag poles at the end of the school year (announcing that the teenager living in that home just passed the final exam of high school) or the handy birthday calendar hanging on the toilet wall. 


Birthday calendar in the WC:

Now that my children are going to school, it becomes more apparent that many customs are not quite visible. You will need to ask around to know what is customary to do in certain situations. For example, when your kid gets invited to the first birthday party all you get is a small card with a name, address, time and a phone to RSVP. This leaves you with some questions: are parents and siblings invited? Will there be food during the party? What should I buy for a gift?

Who is invited?

Back in Mexico, party attendance is usually “the more the merrier”. Kids’ parties can have around a hundred people: extended family, classmates and their families, neighbors, teammates, etc. Then there is a lot of food, music and entertainment. Not here… and I LOVE IT!

Will there be food? What about the gift?

The custom is to have a small party with only a few classmates, before or after lunch time which means they’ll get cake and something to drink, parents should bring the invited kids to the party location and pick them up at the exact time the party ends. For gift ideas? Feel free to ask the parents! I love that Dutch people will be very direct about what their kids like. This ensures a happy face the moment they open your present! Side note: when you receive a present in the Netherlands, it’s also common (or even expected) to open it right away.

The traktatie

Source: Pinterest

In addition, it’s almost a rule to bring something small to school for every kid in the class to celebrate your kid’s birthday, it’s called traktatie and if you search the term on Pinterest, you’ll see all the amazing ideas on what to bring; make sure to ask the teacher how many kids there are in the class. Many daycares will also give traktakie with kids under 4, sometimes they arrange everything so you just need to confirm which day you’d like your kid to be celebrated. This also applies to adults! On your own birthday, make sure to bring cake, cookies, or whatever you wish to offer to your colleagues at work… I learned the hard way (on my first birthday at the office) that they do look forward to the birthdays to have a long coffee break, chat and eat something lekker.

Meeting friends and invitations

Another aspect of life that I found incredibly difficult to get used to, was to plan ahead when I wanted to meet with friends. Dutch friends, or expats that have been here long enough to follow the Dutch custom, keep an agenda. You will have little luck planning last-minute dinner parties or simply dropping by someone’s home to say hi. Back home, it’s very common to simply drop by if you happen to be in someone’s neighborhood, they will usually invite you in, offer coffee and you will most likely end up having dinner and leaving well after the usual bedtime. That is not common here, and again, I LOVE IT!

Afsprak maken

The usual thing to do is to call or message in advance and ask when it would be good to meet for a chat. It’s likely they’ll give you a date in the next 1 to 3 weeks depending on the month. It’s also not very welcome when you stay too long at someone’s house if they invited you for an afternoon tea, especially if they have kids: they will usually have dinner around 18:00 and put them to bed by 19:30. After becoming a mom, I have adopted this lifestyle too. I have to say it’s incredibly freeing to know that my days run exactly as my agenda says. 

It’s not that I don’t like surprises or seeing good friends without invitation but, to be honest, modern parenting is so hard that I am glad I don’t have to think about keeping the house tidy enough for unexpected visits or have my kids’ schedules ruined by someone knocking on the door at the time they’re falling asleep.

But also… “to each his own”!

But as we say in Mexico, cada cabeza es un mundo or, “to each his own”, not every Dutch person I’ve met follows these customs: I have a very good Dutch friend who loves impromptu meetings. But I think it is very useful to know the general social rules. 

What other Dutch customs come to your mind? Which have you adopted, and which are hard to accept? 

Sandra has been living in Delft since 2009 and loves to help others navigate the Dutch world through expat eyes. Originally from Mexico, married to an Italian and now a Dutch national, she enjoys mixing the best of three cultures to raise her two kids in this wonderful city. Sandra works at home and part-time a Business Intelligence Specialist.


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