Ilvy Njiokiktjien’s Cream Cake and Paper Chains, The Netherlands in 100 Birthdays (PHOTOS).

How the Dutch Celebrate Their Birthdays: From 1 to 100 

How the Dutch Celebrate Their Birthdays: From 1 to 100 

Behold
The Photo Blog
July 23 2015 10:24 AM

How the Dutch Celebrate Their Birthdays: From 1 to 100 

7
Sofie de Loo’s seventh birthday, celebrated in Oterleek. Sofie’s parents hired a party planner from My Greatest Party for a Marie Antoinette–themed party.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Ilvy Njiokiktjien isn’t interested in celebrating her birthday. It’s not just the planning, opening of gifts, and making certain to thank everyone—for her, being the center of attention is an overwhelming and unwelcome experience.  

It’s not exactly the background one would expect from a photographer who, over the course of a couple of years, photographed 140 birthday celebrations, from a first to a 100th, in the Netherlands. The project, which became the book Cream Cake and Paper Chains, The Netherlands in 100 Birthdays that was published by Schilt, began when Njiokiktjien was named the national photographer of the Netherlands in 2013. The responsibilities that went with the honor were twofold: to create a body of work that represented Dutch culture and to act as a type of ambassador of Dutch photography.

For the photography project, Njiokiktjien decided to focus on the theme of family and from there narrowed it down to birthdays. She announced on national television that she was looking to find people to document and received thousands of emails, many of which she quickly realized wouldn’t work.

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“Dutch people like it when something is free,” Njiokiktjien said. “They would get free pictures and some of them also wanted free advertising for their companies, so that was definitely one of the reasons they contacted me. I had to look hard to find the ones who wanted to do it to show Dutch culture.”

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Riet Mohlman’s 90th birthday, celebrated in a Chinese restaurant in Warnsveld. “To become old is fun, but to actually be old is less fun,” she said.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Els Stam’s 46th birthday, celebrated at the windmill De Hoge Molen in Nieuw-Lekkerland where she grew up in. “My parents moved out a few years ago, now my husband and I, and our kids are moving in in a couple of weeks. It is my dream to live in this windmill again.”

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Vinesh Kalloe’s second birthday, celebrated in Harmelen. His parents invited 250 friends and family to celebrate.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

She quickly realized she needed to be extremely organized if she wanted to get as broad a look as possible of Dutch culture that covered heritage, economic status, location, and age. She went to the bureau of statistics, reached out through social media, and even went door to door trying to find very specific people.

“I made a big list on the wall, and I would just take it one person at a time,” she said. “I would put it out on Facebook that I was looking for a Moroccan guy in the north of the Netherlands between age 40 and 50 whose birthday is in the next eight months, and it would be great if he were living on a houseboat.”

To add further complication, most adults celebrate their birthdays on Saturday evenings while children often have parties on Wednesdays. Njiokiktjien quickly realized her initial goal of photographing 100 birthdays over a year would be impossible. She also had to find the right parties to attend, although she knew she wanted to include a few popular events such as swimming or bowling parties for children, fancy diners for adults, and a surprise party.  

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The “Forever 39” birthday of millionaire businesswoman Marjan Strijbosch, the Coco Chanel from Brabant, celebrated in her brand-new penthouse overlooking the city of Eindhoven. “This party cost me about 50,000 euro, but I wanted the best for my guests.”

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Anne Formsma’s 26th birthday, celebrated on a boat through the canals of Amsterdam. “I suffered from a burn out for a year, so my birthday was not only a birthday, but also a ‘rebirth day.’ ”

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Like many Dutch people, Njiokiktjien said once she left her parents’ home at 17, she essentially stopped having lavish birthday parties.

“When I lived in America, I thought ‘these people are so outgoing, so different from Dutch people,’ ” she said. “Dutch people don’t invite a lot of friends over to help celebrate; they like to keep things to themselves a little bit.”

Around the time she finished the book, Njiokiktjien turned 30; her boyfriend threw her a surprise party.

“I wouldn’t have celebrated it myself,” she said. “That was the feeling that came to me while I was photographing the parties: Why do they want to celebrate?”

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Aaltje Hooikammer’s 75th birthday, celebrated in Staphorst. “When I don’t wear my traditional clothing, I don’t feel right. I have always lived in Staphorst, and in this town traditional wear is still seen, although the new generation is not wearing it anymore, they want to be more fashionable.”

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Thecla Koulen’s 55th birthday. “I had two outfits for my birthday, one in gold and one in purple. In Surinam, where I am from, it is tradition to celebrate your 50th in yellow/gold, and your 60th in purple. Because I am right in the middle, I decided to have both colors.”

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Petra Offerbeek-Van Buuren’s 49th birthday, celebrated at the pharmaceutical company Simed International in Utrecht. It is a Dutch tradition that co-workers decorate the desk of the birthday celebrant.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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Simra Shanzay’s ninth birthday, celebrated in Bleiswijk at her family’s home. Simra’s family is from Pakistan and does not have a big tradition of celebrating birthdays, but they always do one extra prayer.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.