By the time November rolls around, little Dutchies are pumped about the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Father Christmas—Sint-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.
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?
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 While many Dutchies maintain Zwarte Piet is an outdated, racist tradition who needs to become history, others argue the character is part of a fun, year-end celebration.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.
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.
Last 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!
While Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laans has suggested downplaying Zwarte Piet’s appearance, the Sinterklaas celebration will continue throughout Holland—with a few subtle changes that will appeal to 16,000+ Dutchies who’ve “liked” the Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook page. On 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