Now that Sinterklaas’ steamship has chugged all the way from Spain and docked in the Netherlands for a few weeks, it’s time to pick up the annual debate about whether his happy helpers—the controversial Zwarte Pieten—perpetuate racism in the 21st century. While the debate rages on, the beloved Sint will hang out in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, doing some sightseeing while analyzing the behavior of kids and watching for misdeeds.
As in the past, Sint was met at Amsterdam’s Central Station this year by a few more than the advertised “six to eight black men” assigned to help with his duties, all dressed in 17th century slave garb, black makeup, gold earrings and ruby lips. Alas, the merry band’s garb is offensive to some, especially ethnic minorities like Moroccans and Surinamese who’ve immigrated to Holland. For Dutchies who’ve grown up with the tradition, it’s harmless fun. Yet for any WASP American living in Texas or the Midwest, the prospect of six to eight black pranksters sneaking into the home while the family slept would likely inspire sleeping with firearms.
The matter has gone as far as the United Nations, which has been investigating the Sinterklaas debate since October, despite major distractions in the Philippines and Syria. The official probe has requested a re-thinking of the stereotyped image of African people as subservient, second-class citizens as portrayed by the Zwarte Pieten.
In a response letter, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte noted that Zwarte Piet is not a matter of the government, but of society. “Zwarte Piet is black and we can’t change…that,” he said. Like 92% of Dutchies, the government sees Sinterklaas as a benevolent gift-bearer, despite his propensity for hauling naughty children back to Spain in a sack. As he analyzes kids’ behavior in the run-up to December 5, when presents are bestowed to little Dutchies who make the grade, the Piets are regarded as helpers, not slaves, by progressive thinkers.
Still, with backlash rising from three or four annual complaint letters in 2010 to 200+ in 2013, and with some UN scrooges demanding that Sinterklass be abolished as an outdated tradition, it’s time to consider compromises.
Rutte proposes “beginning by giving 100 out of the 500 Piets a different appearance,” referring to the horde of Piets that greet Sinterklass at cities throughout Holland. Comedian Erik van Muiswinkel, who’s starred as Head Piet during the national steamship arrival since 1998, recommends Piet gradually become whiter and less subservient. In Groningen, a foundation deployed rainbow Pieten for the 2013 Sinterklass fest, painted in all colors of the rainbow.
From an American expat perspective, the solution seems obvious: make Sinterklaas more akin to Santa, his cousin in America, and all will be well in the world. Currently, the differences are blatant: Sinterklass is thin, regal and wears pope-like robes, including a tall hat with gold trim that could double as a tea cozy. Santa is jolly, obese and takes pride in his robust belly and white-fringed red topper. Santa hires 12 hard-working reindeer to fly him through the sky on a sled on December 24. Sint arrives by steamboat in November and transfers to a white horse named Amerigo to ride through city streets. Santa lays gifts under a Christmas tree. Sint replaces carrots with presents in kids’ shoes. Santa employs fairytale elves for assistance. Sint relies on effervescent Zwarte Pieten who can’t seem to keep their shoe polish straight from their face moisturizer.
Considering all these differences, the answer to the Zwarte Piet controversy is simple: preserve Sinterklaas, warts and all, but replace his zany Zwarte Pieten with more politically correct elves. Grown-ups will be placated by the non-threatening creatures at Sint’s side. And little Dutchies won’t care who delivers the goods, as long as they get their holiday bounty.