As a child I loved the Sinterklaas celebrations we had at the beginning of December. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (St Nicholas and Black Pete) were a highlight of my year. I suppose it was mainly because it is a celebration for children – toys, sweets and ginger biscuits (pepernoten), children being the centre of a festival! What more can a child ask for? But now it seems that Sinterklaas and especially Zwarte Piet are in a bit of a pickle …..
Before I explain why let me give you some background about this festival. Although I grew up in South Africa, my parents taught us the Dutch traditions and culture they grew up with, so Sinterklaas was one of them. Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands when Sinterklaas and his entourage arrive on a steamboat from Spain (Belgium celebrate it on Dec 6th). His helpers are called Zwarte Piete (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet would check if you were a good child and did what your parents told you. If not you wouldn’t get any presents, if you were good you were rewarded with sweets, toys and chocolate. So from Sinterklaas emerged Santa Claus, and not the other way around.
Maybe when my mom and dad grew up in the Netherlands (1940’s) Zwarte Piet was depicted as a more scary character who would beat the naughty children with a bunch of twigs. These days Zwarte Piet is mainly characterised as a clown or entertainer I think. And yes he or she is always painted black.
As children we were told that Sinterklaas was a very good man. He gave all his money to the poor and loved children very much. This I believe is based on the Saint Nicholas who was born in the fourth century somewhere around Turkey and whose parents raised him to be a devout Christian. He was also very religious from an early age and devoted his life to the poor. He used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. Eventually he became a Greek Bishop and dedicated his life to serving God. Bishop Nicholas became known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships. He died on December 6th 343 AD.
And now for the dilemma …. A UN working group is currently investigating this Dutch custom where white people dress up as Zwarte Piet, with the leader of the group, a Jamaican Academic, Verene Shepherd, condemning it as “a throw-back to slavery”. Now the Netherlands is one of only a handful of countries who strife very hard to be a country of inclusion, of integration and combating racism and discrimination in every part of life. So surely they should be able to sort this out amongst themselves – if it is a problem?
Over the weekend I also read an article in the Irish Times written by Donald Clarke where he mentioned that Dutch people were ‘blacking up’ for Christmas. The writer is really off the mark. In the first place Sinterklaas and Christmas are actually two totally separate events. The one has nothing to do with the other. Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piete is a children’s festival where everyone gets toys, sweets and cakes if they were good. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Surely it can’t be that hard for the writer to establish certain facts before putting a column together? Zwarte Piet is definitely not to offend. It is a custom, a tradition, a festival. On social network there is a petition (Pietition) where the ‘likes’ to keep the Sinterklaas-festival featuring Zwarte Piet are already over 2 million.
So why all the commotion? Does the blackness of Zwarte Piet make the tradition racist? Are we not becoming a bit too sensitive here? This is a tradition and a debate for the Dutch people to handle, not for some working group to decide, a group who might have no idea what the culture involves or is about. Even if the Dutch decide that Zwarte Piet must be in all the colours of the rainbow, won’t it just be so sad to crush a tradition just because we are thinking RACIST in capital letters. Do we need working groups to decide about all the different traditions just in case something is too racist, too sexist, too chauvinistic, too blasphemous, too violent, and so forth? Imagine a world where all traditions and cultures were revised to make sure nobody’s feelings got hurt! A bland little world to keep everyone happy with no spices to make different cultures stand out and keep us excited and interested in other nations, to learn about other cultures and respect them.
I for one hope that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive safely on December 5th in the Netherlands and that this tradition will live on!