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‘Sinterklaass’: A tongue-in-cheek look at a remarkable tradition

As I child, I would prepare myself and repent for any misbehavior (so as not to lose out on the presents) before encountering this great personality
Sinterklaas arriving in the Dutch town of Schiedam in 2009. (Sander van der Wel, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

This coming week, on the fifth of December, Holland will celebrate its most important holiday. Not even Christmas can rival it. It is of much deeper significance than anyone who isn’t Dutch can ever understand. In many ways it is the festival responsible for all of Dutch culture, as it identifies the Dutch as a species apart — a species which the Dutch believe to be truly superb. And I, without being in any way biased, fully agree with this sentiment. This holiday sets the Dutch apart from all the other nations of the world, in much the same way as we Jews are set apart. Without this festival, the Dutch would already have vanished from the face of the earth, leaving no legacy.

So dear readers, you had better take the following words with all seriousness for the benefit of your education. For lacking this information you will be sorely handicapped.

For the sake of all my sadly ignorant non-Dutch readers, I must first introduce what this festival is all about. It is called “Sinterklaas.” It should immediately be made clear that it must under no circumstances be confused with Santa Claus. The latter is a cheap imitation of Sinterklaas, and has absolutely nothing to do with the deep existential significance of the Dutch Sinterklaas. Any comparison is sacrilege of the worst kind!

Sinterklaas, officially called “Sint Nicolaas,” is a Spanish bishop, and his birthday is on the 6th of December. This is the only birthday celebrated by everyone in the whole of Holland. (This is unprecedented; no other nation has a national birthday, only celebrated by its habitants as the Dutch do!) Sint Nicolaas was born in Spain in the fourth century CE.[1] Being immortal, he is in the habit of visiting Holland every year a few days before his birthday. Why he picked the Dutch to celebrate his birthday is known only to the Spanish kabbalists among whom he lived, and I am not at liberty to reveal this information.

Sint Nicolaas’ yearly arrival in Holland is an event of enormous magnitude. He comes from Spain by boat, and thousands of children stand at the wharf and sing special songs to wish him a hearty welcome. Once he has arrived at one of the major ports of Holland, he will immediately mount a white horse and trot off to tour all of Holland.

On the evening before his birthday, Sint Nicolaas will throw a huge party, in which he will be assisted by “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) to give every good child one or more gifts. To make it easier, he will gallop his horse over the rooftops of the many houses and drop the presents down the chimneys. This saves time. Since he is extremely old — more than 1,600 years old — he is not able to visit every family in Holland on his birthday, so he will ask parents, uncles and aunts, and others to help him. They are asked to dress up as bishops — his shelichim, emissaries — to give presents to all the children. This is much encouraged by toy shops, malls and other commercial enterprises.

All this happens several days before the 6th of December, his birthday, but the highlight is on the eve of the sixth, in other words the evening of the fifth, when matters come to an absolute climax and all of Holland stands on its head. (The fact that this is done “erev” — the eve — of his birthday is no doubt due to the fact that Sinterklaas lived among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews for hundreds of years until the inquisition in 1492. And of course, these Jews always commenced their Shabbat and festivals the evening before!)

The Dutch “Gadol HaDor”

Sinterklaas is without doubt the “gadol hador” of Holland and wields immense authority. Neither the pope nor any other clergy — including the greatest of rabbis — have such authority. His word is law, and to violate it is unheard of. His powerful appearance in his pastoral red cloak, miter, and huge white beard are simply too great!

He will threaten children that if they have misbehaved during the previous year they would be taken in a black sack all the way to Spain. For us children, this was the worst thing that could happen to us. The death penalty was considered mild in comparison!

Like most Jewish assimilated families, our family also celebrated this festival in my parental home. However, I always tried to get in the bad books with Sinterklaas, because it would offer me a free trip to Spain, which my father could not afford. I have a feeling Sinterklaas understood my trick and left me, to my great disappointment, alone. (There were, by the way, lots of Jewish Sinterklaas’ in my younger years, who would walk around in pastoral dress. But their miter bore the star of David — a Magen David — instead of a cross, and some of them had payes, sidelocks, hanging beside their long white beards.)

My brother and I would prepare ourselves many weeks beforehand, and sincerely repent for all our misbehavior (so as not to lose out on the presents) before our encounter with this great personality.

Despite the fact that for more than 55 years I have struggled to live a Jewish religious life — a nearly hopeless undertaking — I must admit that I still long for this remarkable festival. It was very special.

Sinterklaas and the Jewish kindergarten dilemma

However, the truth is that Sinterklaas caused me major problems when my wife and I, many, many years ago, started a Jewish kindergarten in The Hague, the capital of Holland. The city hall had given us a classroom in a large non-Jewish kindergarten complex and soon we had a classroom full of Jewish children — many of them Israeli. We got funding to appoint an official kindergarten teacher. She was a lovely young non-Jewish woman. We taught her all the prayers and blessings, and there was a stage where we believed that she probably would have become Jewish had she not met a non-Jewish man, whom she married.

But now we had an Orthodox kindergarten, and Sinterklaas, being Catholic, was persona non grata. The trouble was that he was going to visit all the other classes in the same building where we had our classroom. We asked for an audience with Sinterklaas himself, which was granted, and so we were able to tell him that, while we sympathized with him and praised him for his great “chessed” (kindness) in giving millions of Dutch children presents, he was not welcome in our classroom. We politely asked him to make sure that he would not be seen by our Jewish children, otherwise we would have a revolt!

The clash that followed between Sinterklaas and myself had not occurred since the days of the famous 11th century conflict between Henry IV and Pope Gregorius VII. I was able to convince him of the justness of my appeal only by reminding him that my forefathers had been expelled from Spain during the inquisition by his church, when they were forced to flee to Holland, where they had lived for the past 300 years.

This made him feel guilty, and he could not ignore my request. He agreed that this was a great injustice and that he would speak with the governments of Spain and Portugal to set the record straight. He even revealed that he suspected that he was of Jewish stock himself and showed us, while nobody was looking, some threads on his pastoral garments which looked like tzitzit! Because Sinterklaas was about 1,600 years old, he was also wise enough to realize the importance of religious tolerance, and he promised that he would not visit our classroom.

Still, it was hard to beat his immense popularity even among Jewish children! So we had to make sure that we had a major celebration for Chanukah, which, luckily enough, fell at the same time of year, as we were afraid that even the parents of our children, who were nearly all secular, would insist on finding a Jewish Sinterklaas. We considered this a terrible form of assimilation! (In Dutch Jewish circles, this is called “Chanuklaas,” in Hebrew: “Klaas HaKodesh”). In the end, we succeeded in surviving this enormous religious trial.

Parental authority and Sinterklaas — testimonium paupertatis

I should mention that there is much to learn from Sinterklaas, especially for religious Jews. First of all, it teaches us much about human nature. While no mature child really believed in Sinterklaas, and everyone knew that he was a nice myth, nevertheless when his birthday neared there was a feeling among us that perhaps it was true after all and that we had better behave. Sinterklaas’ gifts were at risk, and that was too much to bear! This is not much different from arch-atheists who on their deathbed suddenly repent. This kind of belief does not rely on conviction, but on fear. The moment the gifts had been collected, the old heresy broke loose again.

But even more important is what it says about “testimonium paupertatis,” the admission of impotence by the parents. When Dutch parents completely failed to get their children to listen, they were always able to fall back on the authority of Sinterklaas.

This holy man had power which parents could only dream of. An infinite amount of money was available to him, and as mentioned before, he could punish the children in unheard of ways by putting them in a sack and carrying them off to a destination that was terribly frightening for most of us. So parents were able to threaten their children that they would inform Sinterklaas of their misbehavior and that did the trick as nothing else could.

Not for nothing was the authority of Sinterklaas so awe-inspiring for those families where the parents were brought to their knees by their children. He was their last resort for some parental discipline!

Even more fortunate were those parents who made sure that Sinterklaas’ beard would suddenly fall from his chin and be put back again. A man who can take off his beard and put it back whenever he likes belongs in an altogether different class! We are dealing here with a miracle! And so Sinterklaas gained even greater authority, becoming nearly divine, and there was no way to ignore the bishop. He was the Lord’s representative in this world — a very serious matter! (I hope my religious friends get the hint.)

Anyway, I still miss this venerable personality and I remind all my friends that we still lack an authority like Sinterklaas in Judaism! It would do wonders!

With thanks to Yael Shahar and Yehudah Dov Ber for their editorial comments

[1] Historians maintain that Sinterklaas was born in the Greek seaport of Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor. However children throughout the many hundreds of years insist that he was born in Spain and children have a kind of intuitive knowledge which we adults cannot beat. “Better to be driven out from among men than to be disliked by children,” Richard Henry Dana.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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