Whilst Sinterklaas is a children’s holiday celebrated across the Netherlands, his blacked-up helper Zwarte Piet should have been left in the past
By Adriana Dancu
Sinterklass’ arrival in the Netherlands is one of the biggest Dutch festivals; loved by parents and children alike. As the tradition says, in mid-November, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain. Accompanied by his white horse (Schimmel), Sinterklaas or Sint Niklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter), to signify the start of the holiday season. Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5. Historically, Sinterklaas was a ‘boogeyman’ to scare children into behaving, and he did not have any helpers. The modern story of Sinterklaas, including Zwarte Piet’s character are attributed to Jan Schenkman, an Amsterdam-based teacher from the nineteenth century.
Sweets and Treats
From the moment that Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, children can place their shoes under the chimney to receive presents. Sinterklaas rides over the roofs on his white horse, and his helpers put small presents in the shoes through the chimney, depending on whether the children have been well-behaved in the preious year. Children leave carrots for Schimmel to eat, and a glass of milk, or wine for Sinterklaas to drink as a thank you for their presents.
Between arrival and departure of Sinterklaas, Dutch people eat speculaas (similar to ginger cookies) and chocolate. Many children get a chocolate letter in their shoe as one of the small presents.
On December 5, entire families come together and celebrate Sinterklaas by exchanging presents, poems and mystery gifts.
A bitter after-taste
Zwarte Piet is one of the most well-known figures in Dutch tradition, but also one of the most controversial. He appears as the little helper of Sinterklaas, however, his representation and role in the Sinterklaas tradition is questionable due to him usually being played by white people wearing full-face black makeup, and other racist tropes including a curly wig, large gold earring; and over-the-top red lips.
Zwarte Piet is depicted as a black person, whose skin color is allegedly caused by his sliding down a chimney to put little presents in children’s shoes. At first, his skin color does not seem to be problematic, given his activities. However, Zwarte Piet’s representation looks more like a very problematic depiction of a black person common throughout colonial societies in history. The dispute of Zwarte Piet’s character is also fueled by the fact that he did not exist in the original Sinterklaas story to begin with. Zwarte Piet was a new addition to the story, and, because slavery was very much present in the Netherlands when Zwarte Piet was introduced in the story, the debate surrounding his character is logical.
Zwarte Piet’s role in the Sinterklaas tradition, coupled with his representation is disputable. While Sinterklaas is the person whose arrival is enthusiastically looked for, and who gives children little presents, Zwarte Piet is depicted as the ‘punisher’ of naughty children. Children are warned that if they are naughty throughout the year, Zwarte Piet will put them in a sack, and take them to Spain.
Dutch people’s opinion of Zwarte Piet
People across the Netherlands are pretty divided as far as Zwarte Piet is concerned. According to a poll conducted by the Dagblad van het Noorden and the Leeuwarder Courant, there are more and more people who recognize the problematic nature of Zwarte Piet’s representation. However, for many people all over the Nehterlands, Zwarte Piet is very much loved as is.
Leeuwarden will not have Zwarte Piet this year. Cees Anceaux, the chairman of the Stichting Sinterklaas Intocht Leeuwarden, said in June this year that he “will propose to fill in the entry [of Sinterklaas] differently this year. Without Zwarte Pieten.”
Last month, there was an anti-Zwarte Piet protest organized by Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP), which became aggressive, and the police had to intervene. In this demonstration, four members of a counter-protest group were arrested. There are also campaigns challenging Zwarte Piet’s representation: ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme campaign’ by Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter “aims to turn the Sinterklaas celebration into an inclusive party, for all inhabitants of the Netherlands,” by adjusting Zwarte Piet’s character without the stereotyped blackface make-up and page attire. Likewise, the festival ‘Zwart van roet exhibition’ took place in Amsterdam in 2011, and contextualized the characters of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The campaigns generally ask that the character be modified so that it does not exhibit racist tropes; in several cities around the Netherlands the ‘Piets’ are asked to cover themselves in rainbow-hued paint.
Even though many Dutch people do not support Zwarte Piet anymore, there are still many people that defend him in the name of tradition.