Becoming a professional is very much like growing up. At some point we all have to lose our carefree, childlike naiveté.
Old beliefs about the trustworthiness of people disappear. Ideas we’ve cherished for too long, vanish as quickly as melting snow. The tooth fairy is a lie, parents aren’t perfect, and reindeer don’t fly.
In The Netherlands, every child grows up believing in St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him. In November this legendary bishop leaves Spain on a steamboat loaded with gifts.
His triumphant arrival in Holland is broadcast live on national television. Just like his rotund brother Santa Claus, Sinterklaas will go from town to town to meet as many overexcited children as he can.
The “Sint” (a Dutch version of “Saint”), always brings a big book in which he keeps track of the behavior of every child. In the olden days, nice children would be rewarded. The naughty ones would be punished by one of his helpers.
DUTCH BOXING DAY
In the weeks leading up to Saint Nicholas’ Eve, kids are expected to be on their best behavior. They put their shoes next to the chimney (or radiator), and leave some treats for Sinterklaas’ horse. Children also sing traditional songs before they go to bed. The next morning, they’ll usually find some sweets or a small present in their shoes.
On the evening of December 5th, the Dutch celebrate their version of boxing day. It is still the main gift-giving day in The Netherlands, and retail wouldn’t be the same without it.
In my family, most presents would be accompanied by a rhyme, making innocent fun of the receiver. Sometimes a poem would contain a clue as to where the present was hidden. Some gifts would be disguised in all kinds of creative ways, and the recipient had to guess what he or she was getting.
As a kid, I never doubted the existence of Sinterklaas. After all, he came to my school and he visited my house, year after year. Even when I started having some logistical questions about the distribution of so many presents to so many homes on one single night, I kept the faith. Like every other kid, I was afraid that the minute I’d start believing Saint Nicholas was bogus, I wouldn’t get any presents anymore.
All was well, until that dismal day Sinterklaas came to my Elementary school.
SINTERKLAAS GOES TO SCHOOL
I must have been seven or eight years old. All classes gathered in the gym, which doubled as an auditorium. I can still smell the pungent aroma of sweat and tears this dreary hall was notorious for. We kids were arranged according to our grades, and as we were waiting for the Sint’s arrival, a bespectacled young teacher started playing songs on an out of tune piano. Soon we all joined in.
After about ten minutes we’d come to the end of our repertoire, but Sinterklaas and his helpers were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long before docile kids turned into a restless mob of minors. The principal who’d been on the lookout, rushed back to calm the crowds.
“Kids,” he barked, “if you’re not going to be quiet and show some respect, Sinterklaas will be skipping this school. Now, is that what you want?”
“NO!” we answered in unison.
“So, are you going to be quiet?” he asked.
“YES!” we shouted at the top of our lungs. “We want Sinterklaas! We want Sinterklaas!” the whole room chanted.
At that very moment, a rusty, beat up compact car arrived at the gates. This couldn’t be the old man, could it? He was supposed to arrive on a magnificent white horse. Not in a Morris Marina. A few boys in sixth grade stood up to catch a glimpse of the bearded shadow that came out of the car. A single helper in blackface called Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) accompanied the tall man.
“It’s him,” the boys cried. “He’s coming! He’s coming!”
WHO IS THIS MAN?
“Children, children,” shouted the principal. “Remember our agreement. If you can’t be quiet, I will ask Sinterklaas to leave, and you can all go back to your classroom. Now, let us sing a song to welcome our distinguished guest.”
To many children, Sinterklaas was as close to a living legend as one could get. On one hand they would fear him, because he knew exactly what they’d been up to in the past year. On the other, they’d revere him because he was old, wise, and dignified. His warm, deep voice and saintly demeanor was enough to turn the biggest chatterbox in the room into a shy and silent mouse.
As my heart pounded with expectation, the doors of the auditorium swung open, and in came Sinterklaas, wearing his traditional red cape and a rather faded mitre. He was holding a long gold-colored crosier. He waved at the children as his helper handed out traditional treats called “pepernoten.”
The second I saw the Sint, I knew there was something familiar about him. Of course I’d seen Sinterklaas before, but that wasn’t it. This was different. First of all, he was wearing thick rimmed glasses. No Sinterklaas I’d ever seen wore glasses.
Secondly, for a man who was supposed to be in his eighties or nineties, he walked remarkably fast and energetic. There was also something very wrong with his white beard. It looked like it had been quickly attached to his face with cheap tape. It seemed to have a life of its own, because the thing barely stayed in place.
As the Sint sat down on a makeshift throne, I noticed something else: his brown shoes. I could have sworn I’d seen those shoes before. But that could just be a coincidence, couldn’t it? Then the principal started talking. He asked Sinterklaas about his trip to Holland, and about his plans for the day.
That’s when it happened.
A DREAM DASHED
Instead of that deep, grandfatherly voice every child had grown up with, “our” Sinterklaas had a relatively high-pitched, young voice. To tell you the truth: He didn’t sound like Sinterklaas at all. Not even like a bad imposter.
I was utterly confused, and I wasn’t the only one. Something wasn’t right, but I still wanted to hang on to my conviction that this man was real. I tried to see in him what I wanted to see. Meanwhile, the girl next to me started crying, and said she needed to go the bathroom.
Then one of the bigger boys in sixth grade whispered something astonishing:
“Jongens, dit is Sinterklaas niet. Het is de dominee!”
“Guys, this isn’t Sinterklaas. It’s our minister!”
The rumor spread like wildfire through the gym. Soon enough, kids in each row repeated the same phrase:
“It’s the minister. It’s the minister,” until it reached a very uncomfortable looking principal.
I must say he handled it gracefully. He told us Saint Nicholas wasn’t feeling so well, and that he had to cut his visit short. The “old” bishop left as fast as he had come, without much ceremony. Later on, one of my friends claimed he’d found a fake beard in the bushes.
AN ODD DISCOVERY
When I came home that afternoon, the first thing I noticed was a pair of brown shoes on the doormat. I walked up to the study where my dad was working on Sunday’s sermon. He was wearing his usual thick rimmed glasses.
He looked up from his books.
“I’m not much of an actor, am I?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m really sorry.”
He waited a few seconds, and gestured: “Why don’t you come a little closer?”
“You know,” he said, “this morning I got a phone call from your school. The guy who was supposed to be Sinterklaas had fallen off his horse and couldn’t make it. Your principal practically begged me to fill in. I just couldn’t disappoint him.”
I didn’t exactly know how to respond to that. At that age I did not get the irony of a Protestant minister pretending to be Catholic saint. Then my dad continued.
“Paul, today I learned a valuable lesson.”
“What lesson is that?” I asked.
“I learned that just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.
Remember that,” said my father. “I knew I wouldn’t be any good, and yet I forced myself to go through with it. What was I thinking?”
He stood up from his desk and gave me a big hug.
“Papa,” I said with a trembling voice, “may I ask you something?”
“Always,” he said. “What is it?”
“Does this mean I won’t be getting any presents this year?”
“Of course you will,” my dad responded. “The whole school is well aware that I was just pretending to be Sinterklaas, but you know what? The real guy is still out there. Trust me.”
I so wanted to believe my father, but I couldn’t. Not anymore.
That day, my childhood (and the childhood of seven hundred other kids), had lost a bit of its magic, simply because my father couldn’t say no.
Forty-four years later I look at my inbox filled with voice-over auditions (I am a voice actor). Those are all opportunities other people think I should embrace. But when I look at them, I know I don’t want to be the guy with the fake beard and the brown shoes, arriving in a Morris Marina. And I think of my fathers words:
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.”
My dad ain’t no saint, but his words of wisdom are a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Some three years ago, I left for The Netherlands at the beginning of December, and knocked on my father’s door. We both knew this was going to be the last time we would see each other.
In my father’s presence I once again became the boy I used to be, and we talked about the day my dad impersonated a Spanish bishop.
And we said our goodbyes.
My father died a few weeks later.
This Saturday it will be my turn to play Sinterklaas for the families of the Netherlands-America Association of the Delaware Valley.
The family tradition continues.