Annual Zwarte Piet debate

19th November 2003, Comments 0 comments

Every year in the run-up to the Sinterklaas feast day on 5 December, expats join Dutch people in debating whether Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature or a loveable fairytale figure.

Saint Nicholas is the Christian source for Father Christmas or Santa Claus, who comes bearing gifts for children in the early morning of 25 December. The main difference is that the enterprising Dutch hooked up with a jovial present-giver who arrives earlier in the month.

Although it seems he is also based on Saint Nicholas, this fellow goes by the name Sinterklaas. He traditionally arrives by boat in the Netherlands from Spain in the third week of November and gets the presents to children and — often to adults too — by 5 December.

He provides a good service? Yes, indeed he does, or rather the credit should go to his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Piets.

Herein lays the crux of the problem: is Zwarte Piet his assistant, helper or slave?

And why is Zwarte Piet black with trademark dark curly hair and large gold earrings despite the fact the role is generally played by white, native Dutch people who think it is so amusing to don black face paint?

A gollywog or a miniature Zwarte Piet?

Sinterklaas, on the other hand, is based a white Christian Archbishop with flowing robes and a long white beard.

In short, why does Zwarte Piet bear a very close resemblance to the traditional gollywog doll, which has long since been consigned to the "politically incorrect" sin bin of history?

The gollywog was one of the first things to get the chop in 1987 when publishers of books by children's' author Enid Blyton agreed to expunge all "racism" from her works. Her gollywogs have now been transformed into neutral gnomes.

Who is this dark stranger?

Depending on the commentator's disposition towards the character, Zwarte Piet is either an Ethiopian orphan who was saved by slavery by Sinterklaas, a chimney sweep (who presumably hasn't had time to have a bath) or a "Moorish assistant" who really enjoys doing all the work for his white friend.

Or according to website, Zwarte Piet could be a modern version of a "wizard that helped the community stay in contact with the Gods".

"And like a shaman who appears as a little devil, Piet has attired himself in the clothes of the hated Spanish soldiers (who occupied the south of the Netherlands in the 16th century). An optimal contrast to the good Saint Nicholas."

Many of his supporters insist that far from being a slave to the white man, Piet was a little black devil Sinterklaas had to protect us from.

Hopefully all that unpleasantness is behind us now and it is just fun for all the family. And indeed anyone can help distribute the presents on 5 December.

The website explains how you too can transform yourself into a Zwarte Piet: "a real Piet can be recognised by his black make-up, red lipstick, perm curls, frilly collar, hat and tights. We refer to Piet as he or him, but Piet can also have considerable female attributes: many helper Piets have real breasts under a loose blouse and abundant, unnecessary space in their puffy pantaloons."

How very equal opportunity!


Contributors to Expatica have been divided on the issue over the years.

"It's a great tradition. Every year, children's eyes are full of fright when the old, white, bearded man comes back into the country with his black helpers," argued Expatica's Dutch columnist Evert Jan Kraal.

"Sinterklaas comes from Madrid, the Spanish capital, and, for all these children know, Madrid is very far away. The colour of these helpers has a lot in common with the colour of the chimneys they have to climb down in. That's why they are the colour that they are."

But then Kraal explained that "the helpers are there to check on the behaviour of the children over the past year. If the kids have behaved badly, they are given no presents. And there is a chance that they will get slapped on their buttocks with the "roede" or, even worse, put into the helper's bag and taken back to that faraway country."


Zwarte Piet remains unfazed by criticism.

Humbug, countered fiery Canadian expat columnist Kevin Lowe.

"My first reaction to Zwarte Piet was one of absolute horror. Fresh from a politically correct university career in North America, the idea of what is essentially a black face struck me as an abhorrent anachronism, bizarre in a modern, 'progressive' country," Lowe wrote.

"The Dutch will go to great lengths to explain that Zwarte Piet is not a caricature of a black servant, that he is not a racist stereotype playing step-n-fetch-it for his master

"But that is exactly what he is. If the application of black make-up weren't enough to convince you, the "Moorish" outfit of earrings, kinky hair and pantaloons should cinch it.

"To understand the endurance of an icon like Zwarte Piet is to know the gaping divide between tolerance and acceptance, between a multi-cultural society and one which is Dutch with buitenlanders on the begrudging periphery. It is one of the subtle paradoxes of Dutch culture, but one I believe illustrates perfectly the hypocrisy and passive aggressiveness of the Dutch character. "

Over to you

Heady stuff.

Our readers have not been shy either about pronouncing judgment on these two, very different interpretations of the Dutch icon.

"I found Lowe's views in his Zwarte Piet article to be ridiculous. Sinterklaas has nothing to do with racism, or even symbols of slavery. It has to do with the same cheer as commercial X-mas. This is a festival for children, where dirty-faced helpers — and children are also dirty-faced helpers — are given candy," replied one reader last year.

Another attacked Kraal for referring to the child recipients of Zwarte Piet's largesse as "brats" and his "simplistic and ultimately nasty" analysis of the issue.

What do you think? Have your say in the Expatica Discussion Forum about Zwarte Piet.

Updated 3 December 2004



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