The Trouble With Sinterklaas

[Queue up The Twilight Zone theme song and hit “play” before you read this]

Imagine, if you will, a country where dressing-up Caucasian children as African slaves, complete with curly wigs and blackface, is considered a beloved, holiday tradition. A place where full-grown adults, their skin covered in black makeup and their lips in bright, red lipstick (including even on-duty police officers), parade through the streets performing pratfalls and speaking in comical Ebonics as their white “master” rides alongside them atop a white horse and the entire spectacle is broadcast, nationwide, to millions of viewers.

Surely, such a macabre event is fictional or so repugnant and archaic that it hasn’t been celebrated in decades, right? No, afraid not. “Sinterklaas,” an annual holiday here in the Netherlands, continues to thrive well into the 21st century. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, this is a country that prides itself on being the most tolerant and liberal in the entire European Union.

It’s easy to be shocked and outraged by the spectacle of Sinterklass, especially if you’re from the United States, where donning blackface is the equivalent of stomping around a synagogue while dressed in a Nazi uniform. While the elements of racism and historical obliviousness that are at the core of the holiday are impossible to ignore, it’s not easy to write the phenomenon off entirely as a disgusting holiday celebrated by people who are ignorant at best and, at worst, coolly indifferent to one of humanity’s bleakest periods.

The Legend of Sinterklaas 

But first, do you know anything about Sinterklaas? If not, no worries. It’s a relatively unheard of holiday outside of Germany and the Lowland countries. You see, in the Netherlands, Santa Claus is relatively unknown. Instead. Dutch children eagerly anticipate the arrival of a similar magical, mystical gent named Sinterklaas every November. Unlike Santa, who, according to legend, resides in the North Pole with a presumably all-volunteer workforce comprised of happy elves, Sint lives in Spain with a handful of Surinamese slaves collectively known as “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes). That’s right, his slaves share a common moniker and are, apparently, not worthy of individual names. If you haven’t heard it already, American satirist David Sedaris’ thoughts on all of this are completely hysterical.

On the Saturday following the Festival of St. Martin, local actors portraying Sinterklaas and the Pieten roll into the Netherlands in a steamship loaded with gingerbread cookies called “kruidnoten.” Picture Santa Claus’ arrival at the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving but with less giant balloons and much more casual racism. Thousands of spectators turn out for the event, which is held in a different Dutch city each year, and millions more watch it on television. After pulling into port, Sinterklass jumps on a white horse and takes off through the streets with the Pieten leading the way. In the weeks that follow, other cities around the Netherlands host similar parades.

Then, on the night of December 5th, as legend would have it, Sint and the Pieten blast around Europe delivering presents to good children while ignoring the bad ones and carting away the really rotten kids in burlap sacks back to Spain. Instead of stockings and plates of cookies ala the Santa tradition in the United States and elsewhere, Dutch kids place carrots for Sint’s faithful steed, Amerigo, in their shoes, which they leave by their household’s front door.  Then, the following morning, the kids rush back to find out what sort of presents jolly old Sint and the Pieten left them overnight.

Confused yet? You’re not alone. Further complicating matters, the Dutch also celebrate Christmas. For most, that holiday is more low-key. Depending on the family and their traditions, sometimes they open presents or sometimes they get together for a big, holiday meal. In a nutshell, Sinterklaas is geared towards kids, whereas Christmas is considered the more mature of the two.

Typically in October, Dutch stores start putting out Sinterklaas decorations which feature dancing Pieten, along with Sint and Amerigo. Dutch kids pour over Sintkerklaas toy catalogs and write up their wish-lists while their parents begin to dread the thought of holiday shopping. Department stores and other shops place out Sint hats, cookies and a holiday candy made out of almonds called “marsepein.” Here in Leiden, many shops have Sinterklaas window displays. A bakery in our neighborhood is selling Sint and Piet-shaped marsepein and V & D, a nearby department store, has a large section devoted to holiday candy, costumes and, believe it or not, Zwarte Piet makeup kits (see below).

Sinterklaas’ Big Arrival in Dordrecht 

In short, Sinterklaas and his slaves are big here, as beloved and celebrated as Santa and his elves in North America. Each year, Sint’s big arrival is hosted by a different city. 2011’s event was in the city of Dordrecht, south of Rotterdam. Being the sort of blogger who’s always in the mood for a massive dose of culture shock, I headed down to see the spectacle with my own eyes.

I joined the throngs of families marching from the city’s central train station to a small harbor at the end of a long canal. Dordrecht was completely decked-out for Sinterklaas. A toy-shop had been converted into a one-stop emporium for all things Sint and many houses were covered in decorations. I bought coffee from an American expat dressed up in a Sinterklaas outfit, who had set up a refreshment stand near the harbor, where thousands of Dutch families had gathered. Along the way, I also encountered a group of Piets painting a Caucasian girl’s skin black (check out the photos in the gallery below if you don’t believe me).

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I picked a spot close to the canal’s mouth and huddled alongside dads totting their children on their shoulders, many of them wearing Zwarte Pieten costumes and/or blackface. A little past noon, a gang of Pieten on jet skis entered the canal and began performing tricks. Fifteen minutes later, Sinterklaas’ steamship arrived, followed by another loaded with Pieten. It pulled up along both sides of the canal so Sint and a dancing brigade of his slaves could wave to their adoring fans.

To describe this scene as “strange” would be a massive understatement. I’ve seen many odd things in my travels but this one takes the cake. The celebration and revelry that ensued looked like something dreamt-up by DW Griffith in a parallel universe where the Confederacy had won the American Civil War. Families around me began cheering and singing Sinterklaas carols as the Pieten happily bounced around on the ships, performing dance moves ala Justin Bieber’s backup dancers.

Sinterklaas: A Depraved Holiday or Innocent Fun? 

But here’s where things get complicated. As easy as it might be to stare, agape, at all this terribly deluded weirdness and start rambling about history, slavery, cultural insensitivity, the increasing levels of xenophobia in the Netherlands, anti-immigrant tensions, white privilege and the very real economic gap between Caucasian citizens of the Netherlands and blacks, I find myself divided, uneasy and ambivalent about Sinterklaas. Ultimately, the holiday is not, pardon the expression, so easily derided in black and white terms.

The families that turned out for Sinterklaas’ arrival in Dodrecht were not entirely white. There were lots of blacks and Asians in the crowd too. Many black parents had dressed their kids up in Zwarte Pieten outfits and, in some cases, had even allowed them to don blackface. How can a holiday like this be completely written off as “racist” if so many people of African-descent happily celebrate it as well?

The Dutch are not entirely unaware of the uneasy subtext and undertones of Sinterklaas. In recent years, the organizers of other Sint events have rolled-out Pieten covered in pastel makeup instead. Unfortunately, the orange and blue Pieten have proven incredibly unpopular and are rarely, if ever, seen these days. In recent weeks, I’ve participated in several debates over the holiday on Twitter and with colleagues. There’s a clear line between locals and expats. If you’re a local, you likely consider the Sinterklaas tradition as a lot of innocent fun and those that label it as “racist” are over-reactive ninnies drunk on political correctness. If you’re an expat, you’re either indifferent to the holiday or completely disgusted by it.

This is my first autumn in the Netherlands but, based on what I’ve heard and observed, this is already one of the most controversial Sinterklaas seasons of all time. On Saturday, an anti-Sinterklaas protester was beaten by police in Dordrecht. I didn’t witness the incident but YouTube clips can be found online and it’s sparked outrage overseas. A Dutch blog called Zwarte Piet is Racisme debuted earlier this autumn and offers a rundown on protests and information on where to buy anti-Piet t-shirts.  An article critical of the holiday written by Flavia Dzodan, a contributor at Tiger Beatdown, has drawn plenty of harsh and offensive comments by Sinterklaas’ defenders. According to a colleague on Twitter, a Dutch news channel broadcast a segment last night featuring local blacks saying that they don’t mind the holiday and don’t find it racist.

One flip-response you’ll hear from Sinterklaas’ fans is that the Piets are not actually black, they’re merely covered in soot from climbing up and down chimneys. That said, people who hang around in chimneys don’t typically crawl out in spotless clothing looking like cartoonish caricatures of Martin Lawrence. I think we can all agree that this cover story is a rather weak attempt to obscure the holiday’s roots.

Ultimately, how much separates Sinterklaas and his crew of slaves from the merry, white-washed depictions of pilgrims and Native Americans found in Thanksgiving displays in the states? Or the continued celebration of Columbus Day in America? I’m reminded of an Asian subway advertisement that became the subject of international controversy in the late 1990s. In it, Adolf Hitler was shown giving a fancy, new vacuum cleaner a Nazi salute. I doubt the ad wizards responsible had taken into consideration the horrors of the Holocaust before sending the ad off to the printers. They just thought it was funny.

Back in Dordrecht

I don’t think that the families who dressed their children up in silly costumes last weekend to go see Sinterklaas in Dordrecht are racist. They probably don’t give the holiday and its traditions much thought beyond “it’s fun, silly and the kids absolutely love it.” The racist subtext of their actions are merely an unintentional byproduct of their attempts to have a fun, family outing.

After Sinterklaas got off his steamship on Saturday and mounted Amerigo, I joined the throngs marching towards the parade route. I had cookies thrown my way as the Pieten passed by. Later, I wandered the streets to watch the Pieten perform acrobatic maneuvers while sliding down ropes off a church and the local V&D.

On a stage in the city’s main square, another Piet sang rap songs and Sinterklaas carols. Other stages scattered around town featured similar Pieten leading kids in sing-alongs. As I rounded a corner, I encountered a group of a dozen Pieten walking down a side street. They spotted my camera and immediately began performing tricks for me and me alone.

And not a single one of them wasn’t white.

In fact, I didn’t see any black performers at Dordrecht’s festival. Not a single one.

Given time, and continued controversy and criticism, I truly believe that the days are numbered for the Zwarte Pieten. It could take another few years but I think a compromise will be made. Sinterklaas will still have his “helpers” and they’ll still be called Pieten but they won’t be covered in black make-up. They’ll be as white as their employer.

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3 Responses to The Trouble With Sinterklaas

  1. Historian says:

    Before you denounce other’s festival characters as racist, look at your own.

    For Santa’s “Elves” look all rather suspiciously Caucasian, don’t they? Where is the Black Elve, or the Chinese Elve, or Native American Elve? Did you ever think of that?

    Santa Claus and his helpers are an exclusive White fest – a white dude with a beard, and white-skinned helpers. No place for other skin colours. Now who is racist here?

    I make this comment just to show you how easy it is to construct something as “racist”, when you do not know the origins of it.

    The origins of “Zwarte Piet” are complex. He is a mixture of entities. The origins of Piet come from these shapes he historically has taken:

    a) An Italian chimney sweeper (hence the 16th century Venetian clothing and bush of rods). This is the origin of the “black as/from sooth” rather than “black skin colour” argument. So the latter is not a late 20th century excuse-myth as you suggest: it is one of the true earlier historic shapes he once had. Note that in the modern version, Zwarte Piet still enters the house through the chimney;
    b) Jan the “helper”. Originally white (!).
    c) The Devil (black conform medieval Christian iconography).
    d) A Moorish merchant
    e) A North African pirate

    Note that a “slave” is nowhere among these. Historically Zwarte Piet has never been identified as a “slave” untill after the 2nd World War, when the “slave” character was attributed to him by people opposed to the tradition. In Dutch, he is called a “helper” – never a “slave”.

    With regard to (d) the Moorish merchant: these were free people, not slaves, and in 16th-17th century Europe they represented exotic goods arriving from afar – an element in the Sinterklaas festivities.

    The modern Zwarte Piet (now multiple: originally only one) hence is an amalgam of all the historic shapes of the character noted above. Simply calling him a “slave” has no historic grounds whatsoever.

    With regard to (e) the North African pirate: in the 16th-18th century these used to raid European coastal villages and kidnap people for ransom or to take them into slavery. Since Zwarte Piet (on order of the white guy Sinterklaas) takes naughty children to Spain, here you have the origin of this: a boogeyman taking (naughty) children away from their family, inspired by the North African pirates kidnapping people at that time. Moreover: the “slave” in this case actually is…..: a slave-taker!

    Zwarte Piet *does* have a name by the way, contrary to what you state: his name used to be Jan, nowadays the Chef Piet is however called “Pedro” (before the early 20th century there was only one Piet).

    What I wanted to show, is that it is very easy to misrepresent and misunderstand a tradition when you are not aware of the traditions background and historic roots.
    It shows the importance of *context* when judging something. Your judgement from an American context, is a judgement from an incorrect context.

  2. Historian says:

    I want to ad to this that your Santa Claus and the iconography around it is of late 19th-early 20th century origin (and derived from the Sinterklaas tradition, but with the festivity transferred to Christmas). In that sense, the exclusively *white* character of Santa and his helpers might actually have a quite more intentional racist background than that of Zwarte Piet has.

  3. Brandon says:

    Hi there, Historian. Thanks for your thoughtful and well-researched response. I didn’t dig further into the origins of Zwarte Piet because, as it was, this post was becoming ridiculously long. I wanted to note that I did draw attention, albeit briefly, to the questionable attributes of the Santa Claus legend in one of the introductory paragraphs. Also, I’ll also direct you to this paragraph towards the end:

    “Ultimately, how much separates Sinterklaas and his crew of slaves from the merry, white-washed depictions of pilgrims and Native Americans found in Thanksgiving displays in the states? Or the continued celebration of Columbus Day in America? I’m reminded of an Asian subway advertisement that became the subject of international controversy in the late 1990s. In it, Adolf Hitler was shown giving a fancy, new vacuum cleaner a Nazi salute. I doubt the ad wizards responsible had taken into consideration the horrors of the Holocaust before sending the ad off to the printers. They just thought it was funny.”

    The Dutch are among the many nationalities that celebrate holidays with questionable iconography, although Sinterklaas is among the more explicit in this regard. Despite the historical context of the holiday, as you thoroughly point out, there’s no escaping the fact that Zwarte Piet conveys attributes that are essentially black stereotypes in the modern era. Since the characters have changed through the centuries, why not allow them to take another step up the evolutionary ladder and dispense with race entirely? Why not go with multi-ethnic Piets to make everybody happy?

    Also: I should note that more modern depictions of Santa’s elves, in American family-films like The Santa Clause and Fred Claus depict a multi-ethnic workforce in jolly ol’ St. Nick’s workshop. If Santa’s loosening up and getting with the times, why can’t Sinterklaas?

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