Saint Nicholas is perhaps a bigger deal than Father Christmas in the Netherlands. For small children, at least. He looks similar to our Father Christmas, dressed in red, with his long curly white beard, but with a pointed bishops type hat and he carries a staff. He arrives in mid November (usually the first Saturday after 11th November) by steamboat from Spain. He then parades through the streets on his white horse with hundreds of children from the entire area swarming round to catch a glimpse of him. They sing traditional songs and cheer. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) is accompanied by his helper(s), Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet is dressed in what I can only describe as a silky/satin jester type costume. He (is often women under the costume) has his face blacked out and has bright red lips. There are usually half a dozen or more Zwarte Piets. They all carry sweets and biscuits that they hand out to all the excited children. If the crowds are large, they throw little goody bags into the crowds. The main treat is Kruidnoten (little spiced biscuits). On the eve of 5th December, children are given presents, supposedly from Sinterklaas. Then on the 6th December, Sinterklaas leaves. There's no leaving ceremony, and children don't seem to care once they've had their sweet treats and prezzies!
I must admit when I first arrived in the Netherlands, I was keen to see it, as I was curious about all things related to the Dutch culture. So I went off to the local river, and stood amongst the crowds awaiting Sinterklaas's arrival. The tension and excitement in the air as that steamboat arrived was huge. The children started cheering and singing. Then suddenly all these Zwarte Piets leapt off the boat, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A load of people with their faces quite obviously blacked out. The first thing I thought was omg, how racist?! I've experienced Saint Nicholas in France, which is completely different. There are no black Pete's. Instead he's accompanied by the Père Fouettard, who scares the kids senseless. He looks a bit like the Grim Reaper, and he gives coal to all the naughty children, so they're all terrified. None actually get coal. Instead, Saint Nicholas banishes him and hands out chocolates. Anyway, back to the Dutch version. Nothing could have prepared me for all those black faces. I instantly turned to my husband, and asked him who they were supposed to be. Saint Nicholas's helpers, he told me. I didn't want to blurt out what was on the tip of my tongue, not in public. But I wanted to ask why they were black. Why not white? Or why not a mix of both? It just felt wrong. The real tradition was that Zwarte Piet was Sinterklaas' servant. So him being black implies he was somehow inferior - as servants positions were for the lower classes and so called inferior people. That was what I thought it was in reference to. However, some say the fact Zwarte Piet is black is in reference to slavery. I don't want to go in to that here. I think we can all agree it has similar connotations.
That was of course my first thought upon seeing it. However, this is a tradition that has been going on for many many generations in the Netherlands. The children of today don't grow up with servants, or black people being considered inferior in any way. The ones who are young enough to believe Sinterklaas is real are also too young to have any concept of what racism is. Although when I first saw the Zwarte Piets, I was horrified, but at the same time, I saw and heard the excitement in all the kids. They really had no concept of any of that. The younger ones were loyally singing their songs, cheering, laughing, jumping about. Many were sat on parents shoulders to try get a better glimpse! Older children were just stood patiently waiting for their free sweets!
Zwarte Piet has now been banned in most towns. Instead they're either calling him simply 'Piet', or sometimes Sooty Pete, and they aren't allowed to black their faces out. They are allowed to make them look dirty/sooty, which I assume is soot from the steam boat.
So, is this actually racist? Well, I'm not sure. I can certainly see how it can be construed that way, yes. But I also feel it's sad that a long standing tradition is being changed, and that the children it's meant for have no concept of what racism is. I don't think there's any harm in slowly dropping the 'zwarte' from his name, and turning it into soot rather than implying he has black skin. But this whole debate has caused huge protests over here in the last few years; so much so that it's actually drawn attention to the very issue the kids would have had no concept of, at least not at such a young age. That would be like suddenly changing Winnie the Pooh to brown! We all know bears are brown, and not yellow, but that loveable character wouldn't be the same any more. That isn't to say that Piet should be portrayed as either black or white. It's just that he has always been black. Nothing more, nothing less.
What are your thoughts on it? If you leave a comment, PLEASE no racism. It will be deleted. I know this is a controversial subject, and I sincerely hope I don't offend anyone by discussing it.