If you are in the Netherlands in the period surrounding Christmas, as a foreigner, you are definitely in for a big surprise with regards to Dutch traditions. Every year, on the night between the 5th and 6th of December, Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus, goes from house to house to leave presents for children in their shoes. Now, you might ask – so what is it so surprising about this lovely character? He sounds pretty much the same as our Santa Claus, except children expect him in the Netherlands a bit earlier than in the UK. Well, the surprise comes when you get to see the companions of Sinterklaas. Known as Zwarte Pieten (the Black Petes, in translation), these colorfully-dressed cheerful figures shock through one thing: their faces are completely painted in black. Now imagine you are slowly walking through the Maastricht city center, on a cold November afternoon, and all of a sudden you stop to have a look at the parade that seems to be bringing the city to life. You are getting into the festive mood, when all of a sudden you spot a couple of Zwarte Pieten dancing in the street, next to the carriage where Sinterklaas sits, and you instantly ask yourself: “Is this acceptable here?”.
Where did the Zwarte Piet come from?
The legend says that, each year, Sinterklaas travels from Spain to the Netherlands by steamboat. At the middle of November, when he arrives on the shores of the Dutch land, Sinterklaas parades through the streets on his horse, being welcomed by children cheering and singing. His Zwarte Pieten assistants throw candies and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies into the crowd. Then, on the night of the 5th December, he and his companions go to every house, sharing presents to children.
This tradition’s origins date back to medieval, and even Pre-Christian times, and the legend has been continuously changed since then. The image of the Zwarte Piet was introduced into the story probably in the 16th or 17th centuries, when many Protestants changed the correlation of the Sinterklaas with Saint Nicholas to correlating it with Jesus Christ and its birth. Following from this, they introduced the Christian concept of good and evil into the story, arguing that good children received presents from Sinterklaas, whilst bad children were being punished by the Zwarte Pieten. The image of Zwarte Pieten, thus, although not having any racial connotations at that stage, seemed to represent the evil.
The first depiction of the Zwarte Piet, as we know it today, can be found in a 19th century book for children, in which the Black Pete is represented as the servant of Sinterklaas. His image is shockingly similar to that of the slaves who served the social elites in the 17th century. You can see, thus, why controversy surrounds the image of the Zwarte Piet, which historically seems to be an image rooted in slavery.
Acceptable or not?
I am not here to argue for or against the Zwarte Pieten tradition. Whilst I find the tradition shocking and understand how it can be offensive to many people, I also understand why the Dutch hang on to it – it’s part of their national identity. Nowadays the Zwarte Pieten share candies and children love them. They are not the image of evil anymore. Moreover, the children do not seem to acknowledge their black faces as something bad, or inferior to the white Sinterklaas. But at the same time, there are many black people who feel offended by this tradition. And when you make people feel uncomfortable, unwelcome to your country, is it really worth keeping a tradition like that? Isn’t everyone’s right to non-discrimination and equality more important? Some tried to change the racist meaning of Zwarte Pieten by saying that they are not black, but their faces are dirty from going down the chimney. Whilst this adaptation of the tradition seems to reconcile both supporters and critics, it can also appear as a simply hidden technique of keeping the sales of Sinterklaas-related products (toys, gifts, decorations etc.) at a high level. My question is: wouldn’t a better adaptation of the legend include a white Zwarte Piet? Or maybe a black Sinterklaas? Would these changes be too damaging to the original tradition?
I’ll end my post here, and since I don’t have any photos to attach to it (and I feel they are needed), I’ll let you make a judgement on your own about this tradition after you see this documentary created by Roger Williams, entitled “Blackface”:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXR0VC7LkgQ. I would love to hear your opinion on this!