This past weekend on the evening of December 5th, I celebrated my first Sinterklaas. I first learned of the old Dutch custom earlier this year when moving to Haarlem with my Dutch boyfriend. As a Canadian new to the tradition, I would like to share with you my own Sinterklaas experience, the fun bits associated and the controversial, and dig a little deeper into the origins of this practice. Let’s begin, shall we?!
First, Who Exactly is Sinterklaas & What is this Holiday About?
If you haven’t already heard, Sinterklass is a mythical character with historic origins based on Saint Nicholas; he is an old man who wears the clothes of a Catholic bishop, including a long red cape, a bishop’s hat, and a ceremonial shepherd staff. He is known to be very diligent and carries a big, red book, called the Book of Sinterklass, in which he reports on children’s behavior. Sinterklaas is to be both admired and feared by children of the Netherlands, for if you’re good you get gifts, but if you’re naughty you get put in a sack, beat with a stick and shipped off to Spain. Happy Holidays Kiddies!
The festivities commence annually in mid- November (the first Saturday after November 11th). Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet helpers arrive by steamboat from Spain. Following anchor, Sinterklaas comes ashore and parades through the streets on his white horse, welcomed by cheering children.
My First Sinterklaas: Sweet Treats, Mulled Wine and Quirky Poems!
On December 5th I spent an evening with my Dutch boyfriend and his family, sipping mulled wine & hot chocolate, nibbling on marzipan and pepernoten (mini ginger biscuits), and opening presents and reading poems to each other. I had a fantastic time, and the night had a very ‘Christmasy’ feel to it including carols, cozy feelings, and heaps of ripped, festive wrapping paper scattered everywhere at the end. As customary, everyone also received a large chocolate letter carved in their own initial; but perhaps my favorite part of the evening was reading the poems. For Sinterklaas, it is tradition to give a poem along with your gift; the poem should rhyme and is read out loud by the recipient. Personalization and humor are encouraged, and it is not uncommon for the poem to poke fun at the recipient or highlight their flaws in an amusing manner. I had a lot of fun creating my poems but decided to keep mine kind and playful rather than give the recipient (after all I’m just starting to get to know my future in-laws and want them to like me). Check out the poems written for my own Sinterklaas below. The poems tell something of the recipient and hint at what present is to be unwrapped after reading.
My Experience with Controversial Black Pete
Although I consider my first Sinterklaas a happy success, there’s no ignoring the fact that the depiction of Sinterklaas’ helpers has sparked controversy. It’s almost impossible to be in the Netherlands in the weeks approaching Sinterklaas and not hear of the political arguments surrounding Black Pete. Upon first seeing a group of Zwarte Piets in Haarlem square my first reactions were shock, hesitation, and discomfort. I thought “uh oh, this is going to strike some serious debates and arguments.” Naturally, it did not take long for me to learn debates, arguments, and even aggressive protests against the depiction of Zwarte Piet were already taking place and had been for some time. Critics argue that Zwarte Piet, depicted with a painted black face, large red lips, and an afro is racist and stems from the country’s colonial era. Furthermore, both the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Council of Europe’s Anti-Racism Commission have concluded that the custom is offensive to ethnic minorities.
Interestingly, despite opposition to Black Pete, the majority of the Dutch do not see a problem. In a 2013 survey 92% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the appearance of the character. These stats were supported by a personal conversation I held with a family friend, who supported the popular belief that Zwarte Piet is not racist. He went on to say that children grow up to love and adore Sinterklaas’ black helpers, and it is meant to be neither harmful nor insulting.
During the evening of December 5th, many traditional songs were sung in Dutch. When asking for the translation I was told by a family friend that one of the phrases meant “Even though I’m black as coal I mean well.” Immediately afterward, she nodded her head in embarrassment and admitted, “Yes, that phrase is quite racist.”
I find a huge discrepancy in the liberal, nondiscriminatory beliefs I know my future in-laws to hold (as well as the Dutch nation as a whole), and their support or rather seeming indifference to the depiction of Black Pete. These are some of the most accepting, unprejudiced people I have ever had the pleasure of not only meeting but learning from to challenge my own biases and become more open-minded. So how can they and an overwhelming majority of the Dutch not see a problem or racial issue with the depiction of Black Pete? I think this is due to a hidden bias; the Dutch people grow up with Zwarte Piet, and they are taught to adore and celebrate him, even to be like him and mimic his appearance in admiration. Upon opposition, they appear to disagree on how such a happy relationship, developed in their childhood, could be racist. Nevertheless, are good intentions enough to validate the re-occurrence of this controversial depiction, or should this year be the last we see of Black Pete?
For more thought on this topic, check out Erica Brusselers article “Is Zwarte Piet an outdated Sinterklaas tradition.”
Origins of the Tradition
The feast of St. Nicholas has been celebrated for at least 700 years and has changed with passing decades. In the middle ages, it was commonly celebrated outdoors. As a Catholic celebration, when the Protestant government gained power in the 17th century, the festive celebration was outlawed, and people began to celebrate indoors. Many of today’s modern aspects of the tradition, including Zwarte Piet, the steamboat, and living in Spain, were invented by Jan Schenkman, a teacher from Amsterdam in 1850; the commercialization of Sinterklaas began in the 1930’s.
Thanking the Dutch for my Childhood
St. Nicholas first made headway into popular North American culture towards the end of the 18th Century. In December 1773 and 1774 a New York Newspaper reported groups of Dutch families gathering to honor the anniversary of his death.
The name Santa Clause, I learned to love and adore as a child, actually evolved from the Dutch name Sinter Klaas. Santa Clause, as with most North American children, played a huge role in my childhood. I would stay up all night waiting for Santa Clause to climb down the chimney, or wait hours in line at a shopping mall to sit on his lap.
In hindsight, it appears I have the Dutch to thank for all those sweet childhood memories.Turns out as a Canadian, I’m more connected to the Dutch than I originally thought. One could also argue I have the Dutch to blame for my disappointment in discovering my parents to be the real present bearers, but we’ll things keep things optimistic. Happy Holidays!
[First published on 12/12/2015]
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