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Sinterklaas Explained

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

A tradition shrouded in controversy

Today, I woke up and had a deep desire to be controversial. So, why not talk about Sinterklaas?

Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. The feast is celebrated on December 5th (or 6th) with the giving of gifts to children. It’s celebrated in Belgium, Luxemburg, Northern France and in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the last couple of years, the celebration has been followed by protests and backlash. For those who don’t know who Sinterklaas and Zwarte piet is, here’s a brief explanation.

Who is Sinterklaas?

Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, a bishop from present-day Turkey. He is depicted as an elderly man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop's robe and holds a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a fancy curled top. He traditionally rides a white horse that, in the Netherlands, is called Amerigo.

Sinterklaas also carries a big, red book in which, according to legend, is written whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. Sinterklaas is assisted by many helpers with black faces and colorful dresses. These companions are called Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete").

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte Piet first appeared in print as the nameless servant of Saint Nicholas in the book Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht ("St. Nicholas and His Servant/Apprentice"), published in 1850 by Jan Schenkman. Zwarte Piet's colorful dress is based on 16th-century noble attire, with a ruff (lace collar) and a feathered cap, typically depicted as carrying a bag which contains candy for the children. The Zwarte Pieten toss their candy around for the children. In the past, he would also carry a birch rod used to spank children who had been naughty.

Some of the older Sinterklaas songs (read the ones I grew up with) make mention of naughty children being put in Zwarte Piet's bag and being taken back to Spain. In modern versions of the Sinterklaas feast, however, Zwarte Piet no longer carries the roe and children are no longer told that they will be taken back to Spain in Zwarte Piet's bag if they have been naughty. Zwarte Piet's face is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Today, some prefer to say that his face is blackened with soot because he has to climb through chimneys to deliver the gifts for Sinterklaas.

Why is Zwarte Piet controversial?

The figure of Zwarte Piet is considered by some to be racist. Accordingly, the traditions surrounding the holiday of Sinterklaas have been the subject of controversy and even violent clashes at festivals. Some large cities and television channels now only display Zwarte Piet characters with some soot marks on the face rather than full blackface, so-called roetveegpieten or schoorsteenpieten ("chimney Petes"). Nevertheless, both Zwarte Piet and the holiday remain popular in the Netherlands. In a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the character's appearance.

However, Sinterklaas expert, Booy has said in an interview that there are clear links to slavery with the character of Zwarte Piet, making it understandable why people of color have a bigger issue with Zwarte Piet than others do. A black man in service of a white man is stereotypical and associated with blackface traditions in the United States that were used to make fun of African-Americans.

Whether intentional or not, Zwarte Piet is still a racist character according to Booy and there have been debates about it since the 1960s. Over the years, these debates have steadily gotten more and more serious. Cultural anthropologist, Jef de Jager, has said that, due to a lack of knowledge on the character of Zwarte Piet, there hasn’t been much change brought to the character. Especially since those who play Zwarte Piet usually have no racist intentions, they do not see the character as racist. While parents keep telling their children that Zwarte Piet is black because of going through so many chimneys delivering gifts, the fact is that in 1828 writer Joseph Alberdingk Thijm described Zwarte Piet as a “kinky-haired negro”. De Jager adds that a chimney Pete wouldn’t then need to have kinky hair, red lips, and earrings.

Differing opinions

Speaking to someone who has experienced both completely Black Pete's and the more recent soot-covered Pete's in her lifetime, we asked for her opinion on the subject. She was born and raised in Aruba and she said,

“I think that it’s time the character be adapted, it’s not about doing away with tradition as many who oppose change state, but rather making people of color feel more accepted in this tradition. As the population becomes more diverse and steers away from the generally Caucasian majority, it’s time we adjust. The intention might not be to be racist or insensitive but it’s there. As a person of color who, as a child, was severely teased and called Black Pete, it’s horrifying to think some people don’t understand what that can do to a child.”

While another person, who was born in the Netherlands to parents born in Curacao, shared that due to having kinky hair, she was also compared to Black Pete even though she looks Caucasian,

“I dreaded the season leading up to Sinterklaas, it was the time where everyone became aware of my hair and I was no longer just me. Suddenly, I was Zwarte Piet. Children can be cruel and, unless changes are made into this tradition, bullying will continue.”

Last year the entrance of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands was organized in Zaandstad. The committee in charge of this celebration announced last year that only soot-covered Petes would be present at this celebration, however after receiving heavy backlash, the committee has decided to back-paddle and still have Black Petes at the festivities.

Considering the tradition and the different opinions around the subject, I’m wondering what the festivities will look like this year. However, I'd also like to make my opinion very clear, Zwarte Piet is a deeply RACIST character. Traditions should change and be adapted to the times and this one should have changed a long, long, long time ago! A tradition that causes bullying in schools is clearly a sign that things need to change.

What are your thoughts on this tradition and the festivities around it? Should the tradition be changed?


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Phryme Magazine.


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