Saint Nicholas: the hard politics of soft myths

While packed full of humour and touchy subjects, the Dutch celebration of Saint Nicholas is at once an enduring testimony to the country´s racial imagination and one of the most promising sites of its disruption.

May I tell you the story of Saint Nicholas´s yearly visit to Holland, but at a slant? A slant that takes account of real history to open up a space for real myth. Which is to say: for the politics of tradition as innovation. Precisely because folk-myths are different from policy. Policy is made by politicians, but folk-myths are made by the contradictions of history, a creature for which politics has no good name. Sometimes these flow to places we have yet to imagine, lead the way so to speak, open new doors. As happened one morning in Amsterdam: the day Saint Nicholas arrived. We spend much time thinking about social and economic politics, but the politics of social fantasy is just as engaging. If you are at first confused, please bear with me: it will become clear.

Every year, in this little corner of the world, for as long as anyone can remember, an ancient Turkish man arrives from far away, accompanied by a host of Berbers. One might think that this is because many Turks and Berbers have recently come to live here. But they hardly notice his arrival. Instead, it is the old-time natives who cheer, who call out, who sing. Political dignitaries put on their best finery to welcome the regally-dressed visitors and on television their every move is followed in the weeks to come. During the day, the Berbers will be seen here and there, climbing roofs, handing out sweets, doing tricks in their flashy livery while the wise old man rides through town on his white steed. Every few nights, families gather in their homes to create little shrines out of shoes filled with fruit, letters and bits of art, before which they sing, requesting a personal dispensation for their children. If the household is blessed, one of the Berbers will come in the night to gather up all the gifts and letters. Little presents and chocolate letters will be left in return. Discovering these in the morning, the families will call out their thanks to the honoured visitors for their kindness and generosity.

Slowly the tension builds. The great night is coming. In bed, children find it ever more difficult to close their eyes; during the day there is a buzz and a rush, with more sightings, more candy and little presents, a flitting Berber here and there. Until it is 5 December, the eve of the great man´s birthday. Everyone gathers together at home, eating ritual sweets filled with Indonesian spices, singing ritual songs. They are about to be visited. The children restlessly jump to look out the window, scouring the darkness outside with their eyes, their bodies bunching in tight excitement, desperate to catch some glimpse of movement. Then suddenly there is a terrifying banging on the door and spiced cookie-drops fly through the air. But at the door itself, nothing is to be seen except a flash of color, a dancing feather in a cap, a vague glimpse of a running Berber in the distance. While in front of the door itself stands a great sack filled with gifts and letters for everyone.

The letters will be personal, funny, sharp, biting, they will recall the year´s events, its mistakes and special moments and will convey a highly personal message from the ancient wise man and his helpers. They will be read aloud for all to hear, the gifts unwrapped, thanks given and more food eaten until it is deep night and time for bed. Then, while everyone sleeps, without fanfare or adieu the great man and his colourful company will return home just as his birthday dawns and life returns to normal.

Folk rituals have a curious way of being saturated in the social and political conditions all about them, yet somehow also having a life of their own. They strengthen social bonds, but may just as easily disrupt political orthodoxy. The story here is that of Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop born in Asia Minor but now living in Spain, the patron saint of seamen, children and prostitutes. Every year he comes by steamboat to the Netherlands, accompanied by a large group of black helpers dressed like sixteenth-century Moorish pages, to hand out presents for all whose names and deeds are listed in his Great Book. The tradition is experienced as deeply Dutch, but is constituted out of a mix of Orthodox practices from the Middle East (who were the first to worship Saint Nicholas), Germanic divinities from the time of the great folk migrations in Europe, medieval carnivalesque, early modern South European aesthetic representations of North African servants, late nineteenth century Orientalism, Indonesian (spice) and Aztecan (chocolate) culinary influences, American minstrel traditions, and the spreading industrial revolution. Most of all, for my purposes here, it is at once an enduring testimony to the Dutch colonial imagination and one of the most promising sites of its potential disruption.

The yearly visit of Saint Nicholas to the Netherlands binds together not only the public nation but families and friends deep in the heart of their homes. Though child-focused, it draws all ages into its orb. It is a moment of truth-telling as no other, when the jokes made through secretly-written letters publicly name the desires and failures of all those present, ritually heightened by the use of poetic forms. This yearly eruption of ‘Catholic’ poetry in a land of pragmatic post-Calvinists punctures for a moment the banal everyday cover that lets us tuck away our yearnings, our weaknesses and our conflicts, and through this moment of exposure enfolds all those who are gathered to listen.

It is also the Netherlands´ historically most tainted tradition. As elsewhere, Saint Nicholas looks like a bearded wise man, a cross between a Catholic bishop and the god Woden astride his white horse. But here, as nowhere else in Europe, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a vast host of hundreds of Moorish attendants, all called “Black Pete”, all in blackface with black curly hair and bright red lips. While some say that their darkness comes from climbing through chimneys (as did the Italian immigrant chimneysweeps of the nineteenth century), their likeness to Al Jolson is hard to miss. In the 1980s, there was some debate about changing the color of the helpers, and since then there are sporadic experiments with other color schemes, but to little effect. Instead, the expansion of commercial television in the last twenty years has meant the further proliferation and professionalization of the Black Petes, who now include distinct personalities and characters (played every year on national television by the same actors, as is Saint Nicholas): “head-Pete,” “guide-Pete,” “wrapping-Pete,” “sorry!-Pete” etc. While the celebration of Saint Nicholas is packed full of humour and touchy subjects, the most touchy of all, the deep importance of race to the tradition – which is to say, the deep importance of race to the Dutch national imagination – remains essentially untouchable.

Internationality – including the others

But there is more to this story than simply another instance of European postcolonial racism, the need for exotic Black clowns and servants to highlight – and scintillatingly disrupt – the dominant whiteness all about. Since the nineteenth century, the tradition has shown a striking ability to incorporate its others. Despite centuries of sporadic attempts by orthodox Protestants to suppress the public celebration of Saint Nicholas ever since the Dutch fought to gain their independence from Catholic Spain, the tradition persisted. It took off in its current form as a national folk festival in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was just the time when Catholics were regaining access to the public domain, generating a populist anti-Catholicism as strong as anti-Islamism is today. While this popular anger led to the downfall of the preeminent politician who had written the Dutch Constitution of 1848 giving religious minorities equal rights, at that very same moment Dutch Protestants, socialists and liberals en masse began taking to the streets to welcome the processions of the holy Nicholas. Religious and secular of all stripes shared in this pleasure. Nor was it only limited to those of a Christian background: one of Anne Frank´s warmest memories from 1942 is of a surprise basket for the family from Saint Nicholas. When worse conditions prevented any celebration the next year, Anne composed a poem in her diary remembering how optimistic they had been the year before, how much pleasure the celebration had given them.

So too, have blacks and whites and races of all stripes become attached to the saint. Black Pete was invented in the midst of debates about the abolition of slavery. Until a few decades ago, he spoke broken Dutch and acted out various other racial sterotypes. Yet still he and his white Saint Nicholas endeared themselves to the descendants of Holland´s slaves, quite surprisingly somehow avoiding much of the distrust and conflict that have marked the Netherlands´ troubled relations to its former colony. In 1980, some years after Suriname had become independent, president Desi Bouterse officially attempted to abolish Saint Nicholas as an imperial, capitalist imposition. Attempts were made to introduce a black father figure, “Goedoe Pa”, with black servants, who came bearing gifts and candy for children instead. A few years later December 5 was declared Children´s Day. But none of this caught the public imagination: post-independence racial politics in Suriname was no more effective in repressing Saint Nicholas than had been post-independence religious politics in the Netherlands. In 1991, a white Saint Nicholas returned to Suriname, accompanied by Black Petes, and has come back every year since.

Today, reactionaries in the Netherlands tell those who criticize the racialism of Saint Nicholas and his Petes, that they are either being politically correct or that they should “return to their own country” if they cannot respect Dutch tradition. When in 2008 two foreign artists (from Germany and Sweden) planned a protest march against Black Pete, they were met with a flood of violent threats. The museum organizing the march was forced to cancel it. The basic tenor of reactions was along the lines of ‘we already have so little of our own culture, and then you want to take this from us too!’ Clearly, the tradition´s defenders have no idea either of how very foreign Saint Nicholas is to the Netherlands, what a phenomenal international and historical mix, or how very Dutch anti-racism (as well as racism) is. Saint Nicholas, by contrast, understands this all too clearly. When he came to Amsterdam this year, he told the mayor as he descended from his steamboat, that this is his favorite city in all the Netherlands. “There are so many people here from all over,” Saint Nicholas said. Then went on to add that “I myself have three different passports: one Turkish, one Spanish and one Dutch.” Because of this, it is in Amsterdam that he feels most at home.

The holy man´s comment was especially timely because just prior to this Geert Wilders had again challenged the dual nationality of a politician, this time a Swedish-Dutch Liberal. Our new prime minister, himself also a Liberal, responded with intrepid inanity that he himself didn´t find this a problem: Sweden isn´t Turkey after all. It was one of his first blunders, precisely because it said openly – just like a letter from Saint Nicholas – what many Dutch feel but often refrain from saying publicly. As ever, it is the loyalty of those marked ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-European’ that is at issue. The irony is that it should be the Christian national holy man who understands this best, and in response publicly claims his Turkish internationality, just at the moment that those one would expect to most represent him in politics – the Christian Democrats – have agreed to work with Geert Wilders. This would suggest that for the moment we have more to hope from our Christian myths than from our politicians.

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.