It is November, and the Dutch are gearing up to celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’ (St. Nicolas) Day on December 5. On this day, St. Nicolas is said to go around giving good children gifts, much like the more common Santa Claus.
The Dutch firecely defend this tradition against the ‘American’ tradition of Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Christmas season only starts on December 6; before that they only have Sinterklaas decor, songs, etc. Sinterklaas is a big media event; his arrival (he’s supposed to come from Spain, riding a small steamboat) in mid-November is covered by the main TV channels, and is greeted by elected public officials.
A part of the Sinterklaas tradition is marked by controversy. Sinterklaas is assisted by helpers (sounds like Santa Claus’ elves) who are white people colored black (or dark brown). These are his ‘zwarte pieten’ (black Petes). They help Sinterklaas deliver gifts; but they are naughty and rather dumb, and always making minor mistakes.
A growing minority of Dutch say that zwartepiet is a racist part of the Sinterklaas tradition. They want Piet to change color (to become simply white, or have other colors than black), and to no longer be portrayed as dumb and clumsy. These people have filed protests against Sinterklaas events, to press their point.
In reaction, another part of the Dutch public is shocked at what they see as an assault on their traditions. They say that zwartepiet is not a sign of racism, but merely a part of the sinterklaas tradition. Why confuse children with multicolored zwarte pieten?
And to further heat up matters, the PVV (a rightist, racist party) has taken up their cause. The PVV has gone as far as to propose municipal ordinances explicitly requiring the Petes to be black.
Not about children
The issue of zwarte piet is NOT about children. According to one writer: children, who are naive enough to believe in Sinterklaas, could easily be made to believe that Piet changes his colors. Children won’t mind what color Piet is, as long as they continue to receive gifts.
The issue is emotionally laden because many adults want the practice of Sinterklaas to be exactly the same as when they grew up. For them, tinkering with the tradition is a slippery slope, which may end up giving up Sinterklaas altogether. So, they want to draw the line at zwarte piet.
For other Dutch, zwarte piet represents the Dutch racist history (of a time when black people were slaves), and that it reinforces prejudices against darker-skinned people. There are expressions e.g. ‘don’t make me into a zwarte piet’ (meaning, ‘don’t portray me as dumb and always at fault’). They say that adjusting the image of zwarte piet will not harm the overall tradition around Sinterklaas.
With emotions high, there is a tendency to oversimplify matters and stereotype the other side in the controversy. Anti-zwartepiet people are portrayed as ‘foreigners who don’t care about Dutch traditions’, and pro-zwartepiet people are portrayed as racists. Most people are somewhere in the middle – i.e. they want to maintain the Sinterklaas tradition without hurting a part of the population.
In Amsterdam, Sinterklaas will be accompanied by zwartepieten, but there will also be pieten who are clearly white with only black soot on their faces (which they supposedly got from going down chimneys). In Suriname (a former Dutch colony in South America), their pieten come in many colors. There are less zwartepieten going around the streets of the Netherlands before Sinterklaas, when compared to earlier years. And, zwartepieten now are less often portrayed as dumb or clumsy.
The fact that the zwartepiet controversy is one of the country’s hottest issues actually gives a good sign of the state of the country. It, however, is a bad sign on the country’s sense of priorities.