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The culture of birthdays

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Birthdays show the culture of a country, the warmth of its people and a peek at the most popular food there is.

I love birthday parties. Aside from the fact that they are happy occasions, they magnify the culture of the country where one is in and the warmth of the people who are at the party.

This was evidently displayed to me last night as I attended the birthday party of my boyfriend’s oma. Oma is more than 80 years old. She has eight children and numerous grandchildren. It was a very joyous occasion and there was talking and eating and coffee and talking and eating and more coffee.

The noise starts when someone comes in and greets everyone “gefeliciteerd!” In the Philippines, the guests only greet the celebrant a “happy birthday” or in Pilipino (the national language) “maligayang kaarawan!” I guess the ‘gefeliciteerd’ tradition is a nice custom though, because if one is new, he or she gets to greet everyone, get to know them a little bit and start a great conversation with them. My Dutch is still very rusty so I wasn’t able to talk that much at the party but this tradition surely helped me to get comfortable with all the people around me.

Next thing is you are served coffee or tea. Coffee flows in every social occasion in the Netherlands. Whether it is during a visit to friends, after a mass, a funeral or in this case, a birthday party. In the Philippines, we only serve flowing coffee when there is a wake for a dead person (days before his or her funeral). Because that is one of those times when people need to be awake all night through – talking about his or her life and playing cards or mahjong. Otherwise, we only have coffee in the morning at breakfast.

I also noticed that there were numerous birthday cards and flowers during the birthday party last night. In the Philippines, we only get birthday cards from people who cannot attend, so they just send it by mail. Since most Filipino families have relatives abroad, we usually get birthday cards. And only girls being courted by men or sick people get flowers often.

Also in the Philippines, we serve a great deal of food – with rice or what they call here warm meals. There is also a cake with as many candles as the celebrant’s age. These are blown by the celebrant before the extensive eating starts (we don’t forget the noodles as it is believed to cause a long life!) . Here in the Netherlands, there is less food when I compare it to home – appeltaart, haring, chips and biscuits – but can you still zip your pants the following morning?

Therefore, great conversations, food and drinks are must-haves in any birthday party whether in the East or West. But one thing that the Nederlanders do not have is singing in the karaoke. When there is a party in the Philippines, we put out our best microphones and give out our best voice. Because you cannot avoid the singing. Whether you are good or out of tune, in-beat or off-beat, you have to sing at least one song, or, you have to pay a fee or wash the dishes and have a hard time going home. Some people only get to hear their voices sing at birthday parties in the Philippines. I especially like singing, but I guess, if my guests can’t sing, they may just as well give me flowers. #

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