Sinterklaas: Outdated Racism or Innocent Fun?

Sinterklaas will arrive in Amsterdam on November 16, 2014.
Sinterklaas will arrive in Amsterdam on November 15, 2015.

By the time November rolls around, little Dutchies are pumped about the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Father ChristmasSint-Nicolaas in Dutch. The beloved patron saint of children is a stately old man with gold-trimmed red robes, a staff and a fluffy white beard, who leaves sunny Spain in mid-November and chugs all the way to soggy Holland on his steamboat with his jovial helpers onboard.

Racial stereotyping or holiday fun? Photo Credit:
Racial stereotyping or holiday fun? Photo Credit:

Although he works in the same line of business as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is NOT Santa, who lives at a toy factory at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, employs tiny elves as helpers, and waits until December 24 to deliver presents on a sled pulled by overworked reindeer. Sinterklaas has never married and is less tolerant of bad behavior than Santa, who brings toys to good children on Christmas Eve, while their naughty siblings get a lump of coal in their stockings.

Sinterklaas has different policies. After arriving at Central Station this Sunday, November 15, 2015, he’ll travel around Holland, shopping and doing a bit of sightseeing. On December 5 (St. Nicholas Eve) or Pakjesavond (Packages Evening), he and his helpers will replace carrots in children’s shoes with candy, gifts, chocolate letters and pepernoten, in homes throughout the Netherlands. The next morning, kids will open presents while their families read sarcastic poems that poke gentle fun at each other. Naughty tots will be hauled back to Spain for a warm winter.

What Could Go Wrong with This Innocent Holiday Tradition?

Sinterklaas' Zwarte Pieten annually inspire a racial stereotype debate.
The Zwarte Pieten have inspired a worldwide racial stereotype debate.

So what could go wrong with such an innocent holiday tradition? For three years, controversy has raged over the appearance of the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Folklore holds their faces are black from chimney soot, yet even toddlers can see they have more than dirt around their big grins. Like cartoon characters who’ve stolen their moms’ make-up cases and raided their sisters’ closets, their faces are painted black, their wide lips coated red, their dark curls tightened into frizzy ringlets, and their Renaissance-era robes and jerkins accessorized with feathered hats and big hoop earrings.

Whether they’re part of an age-old holiday tradition or a form of 21st century racism depends on your perspective. While many Dutchies maintain Zwarte Piet is an outdated, racist tradition who needs to become history, others argue the character is part of a fun, year-end celebration. Since 2011, when activist Quinsy Garrio began his Zwarte Piet Is Racist project at a poetry reading, the debate has grown into an international dialogue on contemporary race relations.

Some of the Piets seem to have ADD!

In 2012, international opinion seemed to side with Gario, finding the appearance of Zwarte Piet reminiscent of 19th century blackface minstrels. Some claimed the Sinterklaas celebration began without Zwarte Piet and should continue without him. Supporters maintained Sint’s helpers are a valued part of Dutch culture with no inherent racism beyond that projected by external parties.

badge_AmsterdamInterNationsLast year, the matter went all the way to the United Nations when the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights formed a Zwarte Piet committee to investigate whether the character is truly a racist portrayal that frames African people as second-class citizens. Dutch government responded by admitting awareness of the controversy, but said they still considered the event a politically correct children’s celebration that will continue. A few multicolored Petes appeared alongside classic Zwarte Pieten in 2013, appeasing anti-Piet supporters but annoying traditionalists who saw the rainbow costumes as cultural bastardization.

In 2014, the Dutch government deemed Zwarte Piet offensive to black Amsterdammers due to associations with slavery and discrimination. In diplomatic response, Albert Heijn markets have removed Zwarte Piet from advertising, but retain products associated with the character, “leaving the choice to the client.”

Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten Live On!

Subtle changes will be made in the appearance of Zwarte Piet this year.

While Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laans has suggested downplaying Zwarte Piet’s appearance, the Sinterklaas celebration will continue throughout Hollandwith a few subtle changes that will appeal to 16,000+ Dutchies who’ve “liked” the Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook pageOn the opposite side, Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher has concluded, with stunning logic, “Since all of the Netherlands loves Zwarte Piet, you can’t say the whole of Holland is racist.” Meanwhile, Amsterdam schools will depict the character in traditional costume, holding that Zwarte Piet is black due to chimney soot. Some may replace blackface makeup with soot smudges, on faces lacking the controversial blackface makeup, red lipstick, gold earrings and frizzy ringlets.

In light of all the controversy, what do YOU think? Is Zwarte Piet a symbol of outdated racism or innocent holiday fun that should remain a cherished part of Dutch culture? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Feature photo credit (top photo): Rich Theemling, Holland Photography

Sint's band includes the Zwarte Pieten:
Sint’s band includes the Zwarte Pieten: “six to eight black men” who assist with his duties. Would this wash in America?


  1. In my honest opinion, I don’t really see anything wrong about it. People have to be more open to these things. Just because some people made up their faces black doesn’t mean they’re taunting the African race. Neither will Africans mock us Asians if they paint themselves yellow while eating with chopsticks. All these labels. This kind of argument is really getting tiring; and must stop. Let’s just all get down to the purpose of the event and appreciate this tradition. It’s just good, clean, fun.

  2. As a “person of colour” myself, I don’t find Black Pete offensive because the character isn’t meant maliciously to demean black people. I don’t think it has a detrimental effect on society either, as Holland is a reasonably liberal place that’s unlikely to base their views on some cultural throwback. Obviously if the same costumes were shown in a white power rally, I’d feel a lot different.

  3. I wrote six posts on the subject last year, and I was going to keep quiet this year, but I can’t. It flabbergasts me that it’s still going on. And the idea that Zwarte Piet is black because he’s dirty from going down the chimney…really? That is such a disingenuous argument. Zwarte Piet also got the big red fat lips of black stereotype portrayals from going down the chimney? It’s time for the Dutch to be honest with themselves and admit that it’s racist. And then decide if they care that they are or not.

    • I do understand your outrage; there’s more than soot on their faces. Nevertheless, Dutchies persist in seeing the old tradition as good, clean fun ;-(. Thanks for reading!

  4. If the Zwarte Pieten are simply supposed to have soot on their faces, why can’t the Dutch just drop the elements of the costume that appear racist, such as the curly hair and the big red lips? They could make them look like the actually do just have soot on their faces.

  5. I think the problem with something like Zwarte Piet is that it’s such an ingrained part of the culture, that those people who grow up with it don’t see it as racist. However, despite its innocent intentions, the implications and obvious insensitivity still remain a problem. So while the longtime supporters of the character may not be inherently racist, they still come across as willfully ignorant and insensitive, if not outright racist, by being unwilling to acknowledge demeaning way that Zwarte Piet represents/resembles actual black people. I think that if the Dutch people still wish to keep their beloved figure, they should consider returning to the purported reason for his black face (aka soot) and actually present him as such, without all the racist features.

    • I agree! Politicians + others in power now say Zwarte Piet needs to change gradually. But I’ve seen few changes this year. Most of the Piets still have blackface makeup + exaggerated red lips…including all the stuffed Piet dolls in the toy stores.

  6. I think Zwarte Piet needs to be evaluated for its impact, and not its intent. At the core, the Dutchies seem to be continuing the tradition for traditions sake, without any intent to make a racial statement. However, as the UN Commissioner for Human Rights found, ZP has impacts that reach beyond this honest, if a bit naive, intent. Sticking to the “ash” part of the tradition and using streaks of black can help keep ZP out of the realm of race and make his impact solely one of holiday cheer.

  7. I read the whole article, and found it very interesting. I really don’t see a bad or racist discrimination in the Zwarte Piet, but I understand some people may consider it offensive. On the other hand I don’t understand why this Zwarte Piet dwarfs must still remain black: they could just be multicolor, or blue or any other, and they would not be hurting any sensitivity; if this is a popular celebration, changing the colour would make it just happier, more inclusive and popular. Holding to a tradition -like bull killing in Spain- with out questioning, s not a reason for keeping things tha way the are: they must be preserved, but kkeping up at the same time with the improvements in our society,

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