A week ago we began the Dutch celebration known as Sinterklaas. As you can guess from the name, it is a celebration of Saint Nicholas. Although the actual Sinterklaas festival does not occur until the 5th of December, the season was kicked off on Sunday, November 18 with the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam. Old man Klaas arrives in Amsterdam from Madrid, Spain via boat, cruising through the canals until he reaches his docking point in the cities port district.
After making it to shore, Sinterklaas mounts a white horse which he rides through the streets of Amsterdam in a huge parade procession. The parade snakes through the streets until reaching Leidseplein where Sint dismounts and gives a brief speech to the crowd proclaiming the beginning of the holiday season.
This would be a perfectly fitting beginning to the holiday season if it weren’t for one odd part of the tradition: Zwarte Piet.
Zwarte Piet is the name of the Sint’s mischievous little helpers. Perhaps analogous to Santa Claus’s little elves, the Zwarte Pieten are tasked with helping Sinterklaas perform his holiday duties. A more detailed history of the character can be found here, as I am not wont to bore you with the finer details. The key issue that I have with this character is his visual representation. In not so many words, Zwarte Piet is a dude in blackface.
In fact, we are not talking about just one dude, but hundreds! Hundreds of Dutchies running through the streets of Amsterdam in blackface, red lipstick, gold jewelry, and huge afro wigs.
As an American, I see this as a little bit on the unacceptable side of racist. Although I am told that it’s a harmless tradition that the Dutch see nothing wrong with, I am inclined to believe that they also see the inappropriateness of the character.
One night while mingling at a going away party for one of the wife’s Dutch co-workers, the subject of Zwarte Piet came up. Being the only two Americans in the room, the wife and I were treated to a story of how the blackface is meant to represent the soot of the faces of the Zwarte Pieten. Now, because I am a nerd and have a tendancy to research the hell out of anything I don’t understand, I know that Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moorish character from the south of Spain, so I called BS. Besides, they sure have very clean clothes for such sooty faces. I didn’t buy it and they knew they were caught. They gave an impish smile and the conversation moved on to other topics.
Many Dutchies also claim that they don’t have the same cultural sensitivity to things like blackface as Americans do because they don’t have the same historical connection to slavery that the US does. Again, I call BS. The Dutch were the first to ship African slaves to the New World and continued to play a major role in the slave trade for many years. I certainly don’t think it gives the Dutch a pass on having blackfaced Dutchies running through the streets creating trouble and getting little kids hooked on the pepernoten that they hand out by the hand full. Enough about that. I think it’s racist. They don’t. Regardless of who’s right, I don’t think Zwarte Piet is going anywhere anytime soon.
The Dutch love Zwarte Piet. There are Zwarte Piet TV shows, Zwarte Piet Movies, and even this:
It’s certainly one of the more shocking aspects of Dutch culture, and that’s saying a lot considering the countless number of sex shops, coffeeshops, and prostitues one can find in this city. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it.