Sinterklaas arrived in Holland this weekend to begin the celebration leading up to winter holiday known as Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas evening) on December 5. As always, he was accompanied by his controversial companionZwarte Piet (Black Pete). For the next several weeks Holland will be inundated with images of Zwarte Piet: pictures in the windows of shops, large puppets hanging from the ceilings of Holland’s finest department stores, and even little children dressed in blackface.
Living in the Netherlands for over a decade has not made this spectacle any easier to witness. Before children, I could ignore it. But with this buffoonery being directed at children, I no longer have that luxury. A number of years ago I expressed concern about how to shield my children from the Zwarte Piet madness, and a wise sister-friend who had lived here many years and raised children here told me that I couldn’t. Sinterklaas is the most widely celebrated holiday in the Netherlands and during the three weeks between his arrival and the actual holiday on December 5, children will encounter Zwarte Piet in stores, on the street and at school. They will also encounter, as I recently discovered, the lies told to justify keeping Zwarte Piet a major part of the Sinterklaas celebration.
While discussing the impending arrival of Sinterklaas this weekend Miss P, my 8 year old, announced, with a tinge of skepticism in her voice, that Zwarte Piet was black because he comes down the chimney. While I am not sure if Miss P’s skepticism is a result of her becoming racially aware or just the age-appropriate questioning of the whole coming down the chimney thing, I took the opportunity to stop “whitewashing” the whole blackface issue and tell them the truth: Zwarte Piet is black and that when people dress up with black paint on their faces, they are making fun of black people. I find this very insulting and thus choose to not participate in the Sinterklaas celebration. Miss P agreed that it wasn’t a very nice thing to do and denounced Zwarte Piet because “he makes fun of people with dark skin.”
Despite the protestations of my child, myself and many others regarding Zwarte Piet, most Dutch people that I have encountered refuse to see anything racist about him. In fact, they attempt to argue that Zwarte Piet is not a black person, but that he is black from of the soot from the chimney. This attempt to chimney sweep the issue under the rug is ridiculous because it fails to explain the thick read lips and curly hair.
Photo credit: www.eenvandaag.nl
The insistence that Zwarte Piet is not black is not only patronizing, but it is also untrue. One need look no further than Dutch folklore to uncover the truth. The children’s book “De Grote Reis Naar Nederland” (The Big Trip to the Netherlands by Piet Broos published in 1949 in which Sinterklaas seeks to recruit “three, pitch black niggers” to sail with him to the Netherlands, serves as further evidence that Zwarte Piet is in fact black, as seen in an except from the book: (translated from Dutch)
The three, pitch-black little niggers, Piempampoentje, pumpernickel and Peep Ling, live in a country where Snorre Mustache, the nigger mayor and his Spanish master Gabbler Straw, teach the little niggers the ABCs. There is constable Knobbed Goose, the blacksmith, the butcher, the shoemaker and the notary. And of course many pitch-black little niggers, like the father and mother of Piempampoentje, Brommie and Grommie, and the fathers and mothers of his friends and pumpernickel Beep Ling.
One day the friends read an ad in the newspaper, where Sinterklaas asked for three large servants. They should go to St Nicholas Island.
They arrived in Flushing welcomed by the mayor and rode through the city. They slept in a hotel and the following days worked hard for Santa Claus. They got a big map showing where all the chimneys of the Netherlands stood. They visited schools, asylums, and collected hay and carrots for the horse.
Zwarte Piet is also portrayed as one of several black “bogeyman” type figures in the Dutch tradition, all used to promote proper conduct by instilling fear in children. Zwarte Piet carries a large sack which contains candy for nice children and willow branches to spank naughty ones. He is also said to sometimes put children who misbehave into his sack and take them back to Spain. Tenensnijder (toe-cutter) is a headless, legless, black triangular figure who carries a knife and cuts of toes of disobedient children. Pietje Roet (Little Sooty Peter) punishes children who play in the woods or the street and Zwarte Hannes (Black Hans) forbids going out alone and playing in the bed. Like Zwarte Piet, both Pietje Roet and Zwarte Hans are pitch-black and synonomous with the devil. They emerge from the fireplace and, like Zwarte Piet, take mischevious children away.
In theory I really like the idea of celebrating Sinterklaasaovnd, as it was traditionally the time to focus on the more commercial, gift-giving aspect of the season, thus allowing Christmas, which is celebrated a few weeks later, to be spent in church celebrating the birth of Jesus and with family.
But I can’t get past the reality of people in blackface and afro wigs dancing merrily through the streets. It pretty much turns me into the Grinch.
Are you familiar with the Dutch character Zwarte Piet?
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