Sinterklaas, evolving traditions…

By Noort Bakx

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. If you’re not Dutch these words won’t mean anything to you. For me, it is associated with a whole lot of heartwarming feelings, childhood memories and tradition. Sinterklaas is a guy, a Saint, and the name for the winter holiday we celebrate in The Netherlands and some surrounding countries. This week was the kickoff of another year where both kids and many adults will continue this tradition. This upcoming weekend, Sinterklaas arrives by boat to The Netherlands, a crazy yearly grand entrance, full on parade and national television show. But this year, the craziness started early. Cause next to heartwarming feelings, more and more people associate the feast with racism. Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, the black helper of the Saint, represents a reference to slavery. The annual discussion about keeping tradition versus moving away from an association that should be left behind, has gotten stirred up to high proportions.

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First, to give some context, let me try to explain a little more about our beloved tradition. It might be hard to grasp for someone outside of the Dutch language or culture, or even someone who never experienced Sinterklaas as a child. But besides the specific technicalities, Sinterklaas is the same as many winter holiday figures around the world, and formed one of the sources for Santa Claus. Every year by the end of November, Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas), aka the Sint aka Sinterklaas, arrives from Spain on a steamboat. Sinterklaas is old, a Saint, and wears the clothing that goes with that. He has a white long beard and a white horse. Sinterklaas is accompanied by a large number of Zwarte Pieten, his helpers. His arrival is a big event, and in the weeks after, children put their shoe near the chimney (or if you live in a modern house somewhere else) and sing a song or two. When you wake up in the morning you find typical Sinterklaas candy in your shoe. On December 5th, or early morning of the 6th, Sinterklaas and his Pieten leave presents behind. Additionally, comparable to Secret Santa, when children tend to be a bit older a family might draw names and make disguised gifts called ‘surprise’ accompanied by poems, often making fun of one another or address something someone’s done that year.

Again, this must have all sound kind of silly to you, but you know, it’s tradition. Historically, there are different stories of the origin of both the Saint and his companion. There is the pre-Christ version where Sinterklaas is derived from the figure Odin, who had two black ravens reporting to him what happened in the world. Later times tell the tale of Saint Nicholas, a bishop from Turkey, patron of children. That story evolved to the Sint coming from Spain, since Saint Nicholas was well known in Spain as the patron of sailors. His fame in Spain spread throughout the rest of Europe, including in the Dutch part of the Spanish Empire. Time went by, and varieties of Saint Nicholas feasts and traditions came to exist around Northern Europe. Religion nowadays doesn’t play a role in the feast, he is a bishop, but the party itself has no relation to the Church. Of course, in historical context, the Zwarte Piet, the helper, was a slave. A black face, curly black hair, big red lips and big golden earrings, accompanying and helping the white guy. The modern children’s feast as we know it now, is derived from Sinterklaas stories written down in a book in 1850. More so, Black Pete nowadays is portrayed as the jolly and fun companion, but in the early 20th century, Zwarte Piet was feared, since he was the one punishing kids if they had not behaved good that year.

So no debate about where Zwarte Piet comes from. However, what we’ve been discussing in public debate over the last years is more whether this historical context is and should still be relevant today. The one side claims, this is not the context and association in which Zwarte Piet still exists. He is black because he goes through the chimney, and his figure is not related to slavery. Kids would not associate him with slave, they do not even have this notion of history, they love and adore the helper of the Sint. The other side claims that the historical context of slavery cannot be overlooked. It would be ridiculous to claim he is black due to the chimney, since he also has black curly hair and big lips. His looks and function clearly show the origin of an African slave.

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We have this debate every year, and mostly, it dies down before his arrival. This year has been a little more intense. In Amsterdam there was a hearing, seeing if the opponents could forbid the entrance parade of the Sint. The United Nations supposedly got involved, investigating whether the Sinterklaas tradition is racist and should possibly be cancelled. The Head of the Commission, Shepherd, came out with a statement saying  The Netherlands should stop celebrating the feast since the phenomenon of Black Peter was a return to slavery. Later it turned out this statement wasn’t coming from the investigation or the commission on behalf of the UN, but was a personal statement of Shepherd. It resulted in a whole range of reaction, from friendly comments, to an abnormal extent of hate reactions on the internet, people claiming ‘’I’m not a racist, but all you foreigners are ruining our country’’.

Personnally, I find it all very complicated. Knowing and having lived the Sinterklaas tradition, I’m of course also not pleased when someone outside of The Netherlands, who might not know all the context, talks about ending one of the most beloved feast and traditions in this country. It might be naïve, but as a kid, I too was told that Piet was black because of the chimney. And I never questioned that. I never associated Zwarte Piet with a slave. And for a long time that proved to me that it shouldn’t be an issue, that it is adults making the fuss, cause we do not associate Piet with black people or slavery?! Some years of debate have made me question this. Reading messages full of hatred and definitely racist on social media. Reading an article from a dad with an adopted girl from Rwanda, who is called Zwarte Piet at the playground by another kid. Apparently there is an association of a black girl with Black Pete.  And a good friend of mine, who told me a few years ago how she was against the feast, having grown up not celebrating it, because it was to her and her family, a matter of slavery. It’s easy to stay naïve and claim that it has nothing to do with it. But who am I, as a white person, to ignore that some people are affected, insulted and associate Zwarte Piet in a negative way? Shouldn’t we at least try to relate to that feeling? And open up to thinking of new possible ways of celebrating an ancient tradition?

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Possible alternatives?

Change is inevitable. Tradition is a belief or a behaviour, originated in the past and passed down by generations. Traditions look static, but as with everything, they change and evolve. The Sinterklaas tradition has been changing for years. Sint and Piet do not spank the naughty kids anymore or take them to Spain. We do not want Piet to disappear, but maybe he doesn’t have to be black for the tradition to exist. So it’s worth to take a look at different way to evolve, while keeping the tradition alive.


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