Few folklore heroes have inspired as much controversy as Sinterklaas and his energetic helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Based on St. Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of children, sailors and Amsterdam (among other things), Sinterklaas is the forerunner of North America’s Santa Claus. Like Santa, he’s an elderly gent with a mane of white hair and a flowing beard. He comes from far away, wears a bright red outfit and bears gifts for good children. But the similarities end there. Find more on that here.
The hero of the Dutch holiday season chugs into Amsterdam from Spain on his giant steamboat in mid-November, with his trusted helpers onboard. In the weeks leading up to December 5—Sinterklaasavond or St. Nicholas Eve—the merry band visits schools, hospitals and churches to spread joy and assess which Dutchies merit gifts and which deserve a long haul back to Spain for a warm winter.
While kids in other lands must wait until December 25 for their holiday rewards, little Dutchies get presents on Sinterklaasavond. To lure the Zwarte Pieten, they leave carrots in their shoes for Amerigo, Sint’s horse, hoping they’ll be replaced with chocolate coins or a chocolate letter, usually the first letter of their first name. Also called Pakjesavond, literally Packages Evening, December 5 marks the main gift-giving celebration of the Dutch winter holiday season. On December 6, Sinterklaas departs for Spain and the festivities are over. So goes the legend.
The controversy surrounds the Petes’ traditional get-up, similar to Renaissance courtiers’ outfits with stiff white ruffs, frizzy wigs, gold hoop earrings, oversized red lips, and blackface makeup once used to caricature African servants in old minstrel shows. Defendants of the portrayal claim Sint’s helpers have dark faces because they’re Spanish Moors. Some cling to the notion that Zwarte Pieten originated in medieval times, centuries before blackface cartoons. Others maintain their faces are black from climbing down chimneys, delivering gifts for Sinterklaas.
In a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist. Even Prime Minister Mark Rutte once dismissed altering the character’s appearance, telling reporters, “Guys. Folk traditions, come on. What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter; this isn’t what politics is about.”
On the opposing side, scores of editorials, documentaries and protests called for a change in the regressive portrayal of Zwarte Piet. In 2013, the United Nations asked the Dutch government to reform the blackface tradition on grounds it was offensive and reflected negative stereotypes. Noting that even a deeply rooted cultural tradition fails to justify discrimination, the UN recommended elimination of Zwarte Piet features many people of African descent perceive as a vestige of slavery.
Response to the mandate has been slow but steady. After introducing Chimney Petes and Rainbow Petes in past years, the Dutch government unveiled a sooty-faced Nieuwe Piet in 2017, dressed in the traditional garb of 16th-century Spanish noblemen. Created after meticulous study of Renaissance paintings, drawings and etchings, the jaunty outfits were on full display as Sinterklaas rode Amerigo through town after his arrival from Spain, accompanied by 350 Nieuwe Pieten on parade.
According to Anouk Rees, chairwoman of Amsterdam’s Zwarte Pieten, “This is the final part of the Pieten discussion. The transformation is complete.” But will the debate end? Will all Dutchies accept the UN mandate? Or will they see the demand for change as a slap in the face of a long-standing holiday tradition deeply imbedded in their culture? What do you think?