The Netherlands: The Darker Side of Christmas

Several activists were recently arrested in Holland for publicly protesting at a Dutch Christmas celebration.  They alleged that the depiction of Zwarte Piet, a beloved Santa’s-helper folk character in the Netherlands, is racist.  In Holland, Santa, or “Sinterklaas,” as he’s known to the Dutch, does not have reindeer; he has a little helper named Zwarte Piet, literally Black Pete.  Zwarte Piete charms children with cookies and a kooky demeanor while horrifying foreign visitors with his resemblance to Little Black Sambo.

 

Each year, on December 5, the morning before the feast of St. Nicholas, Dutch children all over the country wake up excited for gifts and candy, while thousands of adults go to their mirrors to paint their faces black and their lips red. Once in their Zwarte Piet costumes, they fill central Amsterdam and small village streets, ushering in the arrival of Sinterklaas who, according to local tradition, rides a flying white horse.

 

Zwarte Piet—or his immediate ancestor—was introduced in 1845 in the story “Saint Nicholas and his Servant,” written by an Amsterdam schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman. In the story, Sinterklaas comes from Spain by steamship bringing with him a black helper of African origin. The book was wildly popular and with it began the inclusion of Santa’s helper in Dutch Christmas festivities.  A century later he was given the name Piet.

 

During recent years the role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands.  Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, often experience culture shock when encountering the Zwarte Pieten holiday revelers blackening their faces, wearing afro wigs, gold jewelry and bright red lipstick and walking the streets throwing candy to passersby.

 

Since the last decade of the 20th century there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch population, where the Zwarte Pieten replaced their traditional black make-up with all sorts of colors. In 2006 the NPS (Dutch Program Foundation) as an experiment replaced the black Pieten by rainbow-colored Pieten, but in 2007 reverted to the traditional all-black Pieten.

 

The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada within the Dutch-Canadian community, slated for 3 December 2011 in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 after clashes of opinion surrounding Zwarte Piet. Rather than leaving out Zwarte Piet from the celebration, the organizers decided to cancel the entire public festivity.

 

 

Click here to read full article on Slate, “In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Helpers. He Has Slaves.”

 

Click here to read full article on The Root, “A Very Racist Christmas?”

 

Click here to read full article on The Record, “New Westminster Sinterklaas Festival Cancelled”

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