Sinterklaas: light and darkness

An annual holiday in the Netherlands that mixes Christmas cheer with racial stereotyping is provoking debate - even if most Dutch people can’t see what the fuss is about, says Philip Ebels.
Philip Ebels
22 December 2010

A joyfully decorated steamboat arrives in the medieval port of Harderwijk in the middle of the Netherlands on 13 November 2010, to the awe and excitement of the thousands of small children. The figure of an elderly white man with a flourishing beard can be seen in the distance, dressed in flowing, bishop-like garb. Around him is the curious sight of dozens of black people jumping around in colourful outfits with furry collars and feathered hats.

Or rather, they are painted black and wear wigs as to appear black. Their lips are painted red and thick. They help the old man ashore, onto a horse, and parade through the town as they toss sweets and perform acrobatic tricks, much to the delight of the children. It is the arrival of Sinterklaas, a traditional Dutch holiday whose apparently racist character is sparking heated debate in an increasingly multiethnic country.

A tradition adapted

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), as the goofy-looking assistants are all called, entered the stage in the mid-19th century (when slavery still operated in the Dutch colonies) as the sidekick of the child-loving and gift-giving saint. Invisible to the white man’s eye, he would climb roofs after dark and report bad behaviour. He would wear a colonial servant’s outfit, complete with golden earrings, and speak in a funny slur. His armoury was a birch-rod to punish the naughty and a jute-bag to carry them back to Spain, where Sinterklaas was living. He would be the silly servant; Sinterklaas his dignified master.

It was only in the late 1960s that people began to realise the nature of it all. There were proposals for reform: to have white Piets, rainbow-coloured Piets, or no Piets at all. Black immigrants, many of whom had arrived from the ex-colonies of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, staged protests all through the 1980s. Several parliamentary initiatives tried to abolish the Zwarte Piet part of the festival.

But he has persisted - albeit in somewhat more “civilised” form. The rod and the earrings have gone; he speaks Dutch like anybody else; he has become brownish rather than pitch-black; and he’s no longer a nitwit, but rather a witty and practical companion to the now often forgetful Sinterklaas. Today, his role is not to scare children but to be their friend.

No matter, say those who oppose the tradition. They argue that it still portrays a stereotype-filled juxtaposition of an inferior black funny man and a superior white educated man that recycles the Netherlands’ long and painful history of colonialism in general and slavery in particular. It is insulting to black people everywhere and especially to Dutch black people. It encourages kids of all backgrounds to absorb distorted and damaging images. In short, it is unacceptable in a modern society.

Nonsense, the custom’s defenders reply. Black Pete isn’t really black. He just looks black because he goes up and down the chimney every night to bring gifts. And even if he were black, that isn’t meant to be racist anymore - it’s a representation of the exotic, the mythical, the unknown. Above all, this is tradition, and tradition is here to stay.

It’s a debate that rattles the emotions. Avelino Mathew, a Dutch black man from Utrecht who works as a restaurant manager, has called for the abolition of Black Pete on the grounds that it trivialises the history of slavery. “People don’t seem to realise how deep it runs”, he says. “It’s a direct reference to a period of enormous suffering, which should be treated with dignity. Just like we do with the second world war, for example.” Avelino also resents the way that the derogatory caricatures can become personalised. “A customer recently pointed at me and told his little daughter: ‘look, there goes Zwarte Piet’. Naturally, I refused to serve the man.”

John Helsloot, a researcher of national holidays and rituals at the Meertens Institute, a think-tank of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, points out that the heavy use of makeup to play the notional big-lipped Negro in “minstrel shows” in the United States - so-called “blackfacing” - ended with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. “Do this in the United States and you’ll be in jail within five minutes”, he says.

An identity attacked

The Dutch, however, don’t seem to understand what the fuss is about. A poll taken in 1998 showed that 96% of Dutch people view Sinterklaas as “a tradition that has nothing to do with discrimination or oppression” - a proportion echoed in other surveys. In 2005-06, a blackfaced pop star by the name of “Cool Pete” even scored number-one hit-singles. “For some reason”, says Helsloot says, “the Dutch seem incapable of empathising with their black compatriots.”

Nor do they like it when people complain. Initiatives to question the role or the appearance of Zwarte Piet are often met with irritation and ridicule. A planned protest in 2008 by the international art collective Be[com]ing Dutch of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven was cancelled due to “death threats”, the curator says, an Irish woman and long-term resident of the Netherlands.

“To attack Zwarte Piet is to attack Dutch people’s identity”, Helsloot explains. “It is one of the last remaining national traditions, and they’ll be damned if they let go of it.” The reactions to an open letter in November 2010 arguing that Sinterklaas be replaced by Santa Claus - written by Gijsbert Oonk, a professor of non-western history, and published in a leading Dutch-language newspaper - confirm this. “We already have Hallowe'en and Valentine’s Day”, was one of the more quotable ones, “why can’t we keep one of our own few remaining traditions?”

That will be increasingly difficult, even with such levels of public support. The Netherlands is becoming more ethnically diverse and - like any other country in a globalised world - subject to greater international scrutiny. It seems inevitable that one day, Zwarte Piet will be found only in the museum.

Sinterklaas’s name-day arrives on 5 December, when little Dutch children gather with their families and sing songs with lyrics such as “even though I’m black as soot, I really do mean good”. It is cold and stormy outside; warm and cosy inside. There is candy and there are gifts. Avelino Mathew says that in his home, he “takes a moment and remembers the victims of slavery”.

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