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Seeing Abraham and Sarah – the origins of a uniquely Dutch tradition!

In the Netherlands turning fifty is considered an extremely special occasion and one that’s typically marked with the installation of a large life-size doll (of an elderly man or woman) in your front garden, often with a corresponding sign that reads “Abraham 50 jaar” (Abraham 50 years old) or “Sara 50 jaar” (Sarah 50 years old). Of course, this delightful Dutch tradition also ensures that the entire neighbourhood knows exactly how old you really are! But where does this uniquely Dutch custom come from and what exactly does it mean?

Seeing Abraham and Sarah

Abraham gezien hebben (seeing Abraham)

When you reach the ripe old age of fifty in Holland it’s said that you’ve either “seen Abraham” or “seen Sarah.” This tradition can be traced back to the Biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah, who had a son at a relatively old age. The phrase “Abraham gezien hebben” is actually rather appropriate, as it’s based on a passage in the Bible, John 8: 56-58. In this particular passage Jesus is engaged in discussion with the Jews, who ask him: “You are not yet fifty but you have seen Abraham?” Jesus replies “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”. The Jews are clearly surprised at this answer, because Abraham had in fact died before Jesus was born.

Sara gezien hebben (seeing Sarah)

There are no passages in the Bible relating to “Sara gezien hebben”; neither do Dutch proverb books contain any reference to Sarah. In the Bible she is highly esteemed for having a child in old age. Indeed, Genesis 18: 10-12 reads: “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’ Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” These days, however, “Zij is de Sara” or “Sara gezien hebben” simply means that “she’s fifty today”, just as men who have “seen Abraham” are celebrating their half century.

Prefer to read this article in Dutch? Then visit our sister blog, Heimwee.info, specifically intended for Dutch emigrants.

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