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.
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.
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.