Hedwig van Driel reflects on her beloved Dutch holiday traditions and the controversy that surrounds Zwarte Piet – in international circles, at least.
I remember going to Sinterklaas’ arrival when I was four, maybe five. I was excited: Sinterklaas was, and is, my favourite holiday. However, when a Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) came toward me, hand extended, I panicked.
It’s not that I disliked Zwarte Piet: while Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) was a stern authority figure who kept all your misdeeds in a big red book, his helpers were funny and generously handed out the coveted pepernoten. Still, for some reason, I didn’t want to shake his hand. If my hazy recollections are correct, it was because I was afraid my hand would get stained.
Pepernoten, handed out by Zwarte Pieten.
This memory intrigues me. Did it mean that I on some level realised the artificiality of Piet’s blackness? As much as I’d like to believe that, it’s unlikely: when my parents told me a few years later that Sinterklaas didn’t exist, I refused to believe them.
Did it mean I had no idea what to make of black people? Unfortunately, that seems more plausible. I am white, and I grew up in an exceedingly white environment.
Black soot or slave?
As I said: I love Sinterklaas. I love the pepernoten and speculaas, I love the little kids in those cute Zwarte Pieten hats, and I will belt along to any Sinterklaas song. Zwarte Piet is a recurring character in my elaborate Sinterklaas poems.
It’s my favourite holiday – but also the one I most dread explaining to foreign friends.
I’ll admit, for a long time I tried to ignore the offensive parts of this tradition. After all, the Netherlands has no history of minstrelry and the context of this blackface was completely different; Zwarte Piet’s face is just black from the soot of the chimneys he goes down to deliver presents – right?
Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands from Spain with his funny helpers, Zwarte Pieten.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing the above explanation when you’re a kid: I wholeheartedly did. There is a tendency among Dutch people, however, to cling to that explanation even when it’s pointed out to them that the soot doesn’t explain the big red lips and kinky hair.
I clinged for a while, too, until I realised my response was emotional, not rational, and that dismissing the racial connotations of the masquerade was naive at best, racist at worst.
Destroy Zwarte Piet?
The next question is, of course, what to do? Cries for the abolition of Zwarte Piet are heard every so often.
It’s probably my nostalgia but I think that’s a step too far, gutting the entire ritual and leaving only an overly serious shadow of the impostor Santa Claus behind, throwing the baby away with the bathwater.
Another suggestion has been to simply change the problematic half of Piet’s name (zwarte = black), and introduce Pieten in all colours of the rainbow. It seems silly, but it might not be a bad idea.
People have protested it by saying it’d confuse children. I don’t know. I understood, when I was little, that my half-British friend got presents from Santa Claus instead of Sinterklaas because they’d worked it out between them.
All Dutch children rationalise somehow that the Sinterklaas they encounter doesn’t look like the one they see on TV, and that he enters the country in dozens of cities at once. I don’t think purple Piet would be such a stretch.
I’m too much of a Sinterklaas-lover to lead the charge on the above. However, it’s good to keep in mind that ‘but it’s tradition’ has seldom been used to justify something that was defensible otherwise.
Hedwig van Driel / Expatica
Hedwig van Driel completed a PhD in theoretical physics but what she really wanted was to be a film critic. She lives in Utrecht, and her favourite pepernoten are the small, crunchy ones. Photo credit: Heiloo Online (thumbnail), Sander van der Wel (Sinterklaas and Pieten). / Updated 2016.