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Is Zwarte Piet an outdated Sinterklaas tradition?

Sinterklaas

It was a surprise that the culture shock around Zwarte Piet hit me, a Canadian and half-Dutchie, very hard. It was difficult not to be shocked and offended by what I recognize as a tradition of blackface. I always try to respect local cultures anywhere that I travel. Now especially that I am an expat living in Haarlem, that includes trying to understand practices in my new home that I might not agree with.

I think it’s fair to say that the traditions surrounding Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have steeped for centuries in a colonial and racist history. What to do with this children’s holiday in modern times, well, that’s turning out to be a harder thing to figure out.

Who Are Sinterklaas And Zwarte Piet?

Sinterklaas is celebrated by the Dutch by giving gifts on December 5th, the Eve of Saint Nicolas Day (December 6). This holiday is also observed by Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France.

Sinterklaas himself is based on Saint Nicolas, and is at least one of the inspirations for Santa Claus. He is more serious than cheery, being a bishop and all, and carries a ceremonial shepherd staff. He rides a white horse called Amerigo and has a book containing the names of all the naughty and nice children. He likes to put gifts in people’s shoes, wooden or otherwise.

Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ companion (and originally a slave). There is much speculation behind his backstory, but he is commonly thought to be a “Moor” from Spain. He is played by someone in black face paint with a black curly wig, golden earring, big red lips and is dressed like a 17th century page with colourful outfit, lace collar and feathered cap. Much like a court jester, he was not historically known for his intelligence.

Over time, Zwarte Piet has become a valuable assistant to Sinterklaas, and he’s no longer the only one, with a whole range of Zwarte Pieten, similar to elves, helping Sinterklaas. The whole crew has bags of candy and kruidnoten or pepernoten (little gingerbread-like cookies) for nice children and chimney sweeps to spank the bad children.

It’s not a popular opinion to have in this country, but I believe the traditional Zwarte Piet is racist. It’s racist because of what that depiction meant historically, no matter what the rationale is now. Zwarte Piet is still dressed in attitudes that do not see black people as deserving of dignity and respect. But thankfully that’s not the end of this story.

What Is This Sinterklaas Holiday About?

Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain in mid-November, this year on November 14th. This event, Sinterklaasfeest, is broadcast on national television. He parades through the street on his horse while children, many decked out in Zwarte Piet feathered caps, some with faces painted black or streaked with soot, sing traditional Sinterklaas songs. He then visits every town by boat, train, horse, or whatever is convenient.

On December 5th, Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Evening), children leave their shoes out next to the fireplace with treats for Sinterklaas’ horse and in the morning they will find candy, notes and small presents in them.

It’s rather a nice holiday for the kids, just like Christmas back home, except for that little thing with Zwarte Piet. No one wants to ruin Christmas, and the Dutch don’t want to ruin Sinterklaasavond. But does changing Zwarte Piet to make his depiction less offensive mean “ruining” the holiday?

Shouldn’t This Be A Non-Issue In A Progressive Nation?

The Dutch were the first to legalize gay marriage. Their policies on euthenasia, prostitution, recreational drugs are some of the most liberal in the world. They are known for their international and tolerant attittude. How can blackface still be practiced here, during a children’s holiday no less, in the year 2015?

My only answer is that recognizing and confronting racism and bias in your own thinking, in your fond childhood memories, and in traditions that go as far back as to seem infinite is always a difficult thing to do. It’s not a uniquely Dutch problem, and as politically correct as Canadians like to think we are, we are certainly not immune to racism either. It’s a global problem, and it probably always will be. That doesn’t mean overcoming racism in our thoughts, our words, our traditions and our policies is a worthless pursuit.

You may have also noticed that the Netherlands is a country of strong opinions, the more controversial, the better. The more criticism is levelled against Zwarte Piet’s image, the more strongly some people feel about keeping him just the way he is.

What To Do With Zwarte Piet?

My half-Dutch family never celebrated Sinterklaasavond in Canada as I grew up, though I did know the basics of the story, the one where Zwarte Piet puts bad kids in his sack and beats them with a stick. I’m glad we never celebrated that!

Now that I live in the Netherlands, I see that the Dutch find themselves in a conundrum with Zwarte Piet. Most would be happy to leave things the way they are, but know they face growing opposition and criticism internationally, as well as within their own borders. In 2013, a United Nations committee investigated the practice of Zwarte Piet and encouraged the Dutch government to actively change his image, declaring that “a deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes.” In a country with growing populations of minorities and diverse ethnic groups, it is no longer something that can be simply ignored.

We’ve heard from Dutch people themselves, some acknowledging the controversial nature of the holiday, and open to more modern traditions. But we’ve also heard staunch defences of keeping the Zwarte Pieten the way they are. They are reluctant to mess with the traditions of happy childhood memories. They reason that cries of racism are misinformed: Zwarte Piet isn’t actually a slave and his face is only black from chimney soot.

This, in fact, is the new story of Zwarte Piet, the story parents have been telling their children for years. Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep.

A 2013 poll showed that 92% of Dutch did not believe that Zwarte Piet was racist or associated with slavery. How can this be, when to much of the world Zwarte Piet’s portrayal is clearly offensive? At least one reason is that for many Dutch, Zwarte Piet’s story has already changed, and now only his image has to catch up. Sometimes the smallest details are the hardest to let go.

There is a campaign for change that’s been growing momentum the past few years, including protests at Sinterklaas events, but such changes often take time. People often grasp tightly to the most inconsequential of holiday traditions. What does it matter what colour Sinterklaas’s helpers are, if it means being more inclusive and respectful to all the people that call the Netherlands home?

The National Sinterklaas television show started with traditional Pieten but has introduced a range of Pieten that become darker the more chimneys they travel. Nickelodeon, on the other hand, introduced a multicultural team of Pieten with no blackface in sight, after just ignoring the issue last year by having no Pieten. The multicultural team seems like a great, feel-good solution to me, but make no mistake, it has been controversial in the Netherlands. It’s a minefield, but I’m happy to see that the Dutch are trying to navigate it.

For the arrival of Sinterklaas’ steamboat this year, the Zwarte Pieten did not have gold earrings or bright red lips, and in some cities some of them were streaked with “soot” rather than black make-up. “Chimney Pieten” will become more and more common. City by city, the country is easing its people into a modern Sinterklaasfeest.

Sinterklaasfeest In Haarlem

Maybe I have just experienced the last traditional Arrival of Sinterklaas to be held in Haarlem, and I am grateful for it. It’s only a little paint, but I didn’t like what I felt when I saw it, as a Canadian and humanitarian. I’m glad for the piercing reminder of how important I believe multiculturalism to be. But all around me were families, having a great time with their kids, traipsing down cobblestone streets and waiting in the rain for a glimpse of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten. Zwarte Piet’s colour is not the meaning of Sinterklaasavond, it’s clearly kindness and joy.

Hearing the children cry out with excitement, “Zwarte Piet, Zwarte Piet!” for their chance at some candy, I truly don’t think they care whether his face is black, or white or dirty or clean. Change is coming, it’s long past-due.

Erica Brusselers

Erica Brusselers

Editor & Writer at expatsHaarlem
A loss in the family prompted Erica, her husband and their cat to put all their belongings in storage and leave Canada for a new adventure in Haarlem, NL. She's half-Dutch with a big maple leaf heart. Travelling and finding stories to share are two of her favourite things. She’s a writer and communications professional who watches too much television and enjoys curling up in a spot of sunshine with a good book. You can follow her adventures on the blog, The Travelling Shus.
Erica Brusselers