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  • Sinterklaas and Black Pete: Tradition and Controversy

    The Tradition

    The most popular holiday in the west is upon us. That friendly old man in the red hat is currently getting ready to come down our chimneys with presents for the whole family on the 25th December. But if you are in the Netherlands the friendly old guy is already in town, and his name is Sinterklaas. The yearly tradition sees Sinterklaas, sporting Catholic robes and a bishop’s hat, arrive in town from Spain on a Sunday in mid-November aboard a steam boat, accompanied by a troop of helpers. He then proceeds to parade around the city atop of his white horse, whilst his helpers, Black Pete’s distribute sweets and pepernoten (sugar and spice cookies) to the crowds of children. Sinterklaas, which is in part the prototype of the well known Santa Claus, is helped by the Black Pete’s to hand out presents on the  5th December, on the eve of St Nicholas Day. Unlike elsewhere part of the tradition is to wrap the presents in a creative way, for example a small present inside layers upon layers of wrapping paper and this is accompanied by a poem, usually aimed at poking fun at the receiver.

    The roots of the celebrations in its modern format dates back to the 19th century but St Nicholas, the Christian Saint, the original figure of Sinterklaas was a bishop living around the 6th Century in present day Turkey. Although there are different theories for the origin of the Saint he became known as the patron of sailors and children, due to his good deeds as a man who came from a rich background and invested his fortune in looking after the needy.

    The uniqueness and importance given to these celebrations seem to work as a symbol of ‘Dutchness’, as opposed to the highly commercial American style celebration that takes place on the 25th December. Nowadays some Dutch children are indeed blessed with two rounds of presents, which is not exactly a non-materialist take on the celebrations. Nevertheless St Nicholas day and Sinterklaas’ arrival in November is the real  month’s highlight.  Immersed in tradition, myth and religion it certainly rekindles a type of communal sense outside present buying, giving and receiving.

     

    The Controversy

     

    However, there is a small debate that lingers on and that especially affects those who come from outside the Netherlands:  Sinterklaas’ helper,  Black Pete. If you are an expat or a person of African descent  you might feel slightly puzzled if not insulted by the figure of Black Pete. Always played by a white person with a blackened face, bright red lips and a curly wig it is reminiscent of black-face figures which are now obsolete in western culture due to their negative racial connotations such as Minstrels and Golliwogs. Talking in a broken Dutch accent, the Sinterklaas’ little helper has evolved from a scary figure who would abduct badly behaved children and take them to Spain into a mischievous clown figure. If Black Pete is indeed a racial stereotype, either representations are bound to offend those who make up a big part of Dutch history and society, first and second generations from former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and South America.

    A paper by the Ferry State University for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia points to the duality inherent in the relationship between Sinterklaas and Black Pete, respectively represented as a white saint and a black servant, a civilised, wise master and a wild, childish, irrational subordinate. With this in mind a section of Dutch society has been protesting since the 1970s against what they see as an outdated relic from a colonial past unfit for a multi cultural society. Efforts were made to give the figure blue, red or green faces, which proved to be unsuccessful.  An activist group, ‘Piet Vrij/ Black Pete is Racism’ was faced with the arrest of one of their member’s in last year’s celebrations when they attended the arrival of Sinterklaas in stencilled ‘Black Pete is Racism’  T-shirts. The anti- Black Pete feeling seems to be growing in recent years, as Euro News reported that the number of complaints to the Anti-discrimination Bureau has soared from 1 or 2 to more than a hundred.

    The counter argument protecting the custom is backed up by the aims to keep a tradition alive which brings joy to countless children today as it did to their parents and grandparents before that. In attacking it, it is the critics of the holiday who make it racist, by being over-sensitive about a mythical character whose black skin is really just the result of him going down our chimneys on the eve of St Nicholas day. Black Pete’s evolution into a clown character has also meant that he is now a beloved figure rather than a menacing one, being  his name that children excitingly chant as Sinterklaas’s Steam boat approaches the harbour.

    So how do YOU feel about Black Pete? Post us your thoughts below and get the chance to be in our printed December issue!

    Comments

    • Dirk Bontes
      November 2, 2017 at 6:16 am

      Black Pete, Minstrels and Golliwogs do not have anything to do with negroid people. Golliwogs and the original Minstrel character are based upon the Indo-European Black Pete figure, who is Saint Nicholas’ son. He rules Hell, just as his father Saint Nicholas rules Heaven.

      Everybody who lives in Hell – colloquially called ‘the chimney’ – turns pitch-black. That is why Black Pete is pitch-black, (As was his father Saint Nicholas when he ruled Hell in previous times, for he was the first Black Pete.)

      The agitation against Black Pete uses the straw man fallacy: accusing Black Pete of being a negroid person (which isn;t true) and then demanding that he be changed or done away with. *Which is pretty stupid, as the Sinterklaas celebration is a change of year ritual, with the geriatric Saint Nicholas representing the Old Year and his juvenile son Black Pete representing the fresh New Year.
      One cannot do away with the New Year.)

      The purpose of the agitation against Black Pete appears to be to motivate the Dutch people to vote for right wing political parties in preparation for the next European genocide.

    • White Pete
      November 12, 2017 at 11:03 am

      Dirk Bontes, you are so full of it! Do you ACTUALLY believe the motherload of crap you just wrote??

      If Black Pete “supposedly” represents ‘the son of Saint Nicholas’… then why is there a whole group of them but only one (1) Saint Nick? And if Black Pete isn’t based on a negroid person… then explain the need for curly wigs, red lips, golden earrings and a dumb accent?? Did Hell suddenly gave Sinterklaas’ “only son” African features?? Is your explanation therefore implying that Hell is for black people and Heaven is for whites??! Sure sounds like it 😁 And WHY don’t ANY of the kids songs refer to your PATHETIC explanation of this tradition?! Lmao.

      Your theory is ridiculously flawed —and not to mention racist. I’m appalled and truly baffled by the ways you people try to wriggle your way out of the truth. So unapologetically dismissive and condescending. But guess what… ignoring Black Pete’s heritage will not work any longer. It surely was an entertaining try though. Welcome to the 21st century amd good luck stopping the “European genocide” lmao.

    • Blair deLaubenfels
      November 24, 2017 at 12:46 am

      Just had a uncomfortable argument about this in a Belgian cafe. I met a black woman from Bruges the other night who told me in tears how much the Sinterklaas tradition hurts her feelings every year and that kids used to ask her in school if she was a Sinterklaas helper. When I asked a white woman who was vehemently defending it why she should should protect a tradition that hurts others at a time when all people should feel included, she stormed out in a huff. The black faces on see her on cakes and cards in Belgium don’t look like helper that came down a chimney, they look like embarrassing stabs at dark skinned people. I find it very disturbing.

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