‘Saint’ Nicholas: an innocent children’s tradition or hidden racism?

I remember it vividly, putting a letter in my boot for Sinterklaas along with a carrot for his horse. I remember waking up and running to the fireplace to find what Saint Nicholas, otherwise known as ‘Sinterklaas’, had put in my shoes. The packets I would find in there would never let me down, ever. After the excitement of opening your presents, it was off to school to find out who drew your name for the ‘secret santa, Sinterklaas-style’ gathering. But now that I am older, I am starting to realise that there is more to this tradition than only fun and games. It certainly isn’t just moonlight and roses, al though from the outside, it does appear to be.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet’ is a traditional celebration in the Netherlands, where I grew up, that is celebrated annually and never fails to draw in a large crowd. Now let us imagine the scenario: you find yourself going to the event that sees Saint Nicholas arriving on a boat in the Netherlands. Around you are little kids, as well as a few adults here and there who pretend they are there for their children but are actually there to collect some free goodies, who are patiently awaiting Saint Nicholas’ arrival at the pier. Black Petes jump off the boat and fool around, whereas the Saint himself luxuriously hops onto his horse Amerigo. The Petes throw around sweets and cakes, celebrating the arrival of Saint Nicholas. Overall a very peaceful tradition, one would think.

There have recently been substantial claims thrown into the face of the once very peaceful and fun tradition. The concept of Black Pete has developed a great sense of controversy that has been roaming around the tradition for a while. The Dutch custom is being branded racist as people are saying it has racist traits to it. Karla, who is a Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, says: ‘there is a real social issue developing in the country at the moment. A large number of people argue that our custom is racist. They think that it all adds up, from the costume to the hair and the big red lips. To me it is deeply concerning that people are misunderstanding the entire concept. Black Pete is, and always has been, an innocent tradition; we must stand up and let the public know our intentions. Everyone in the Netherlands is equal and we do not allow discrimination in any way, shape or form’.

The idea of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was introduced in the 1850s when Saint Nicholas and ‘his Servant’, Black Pete, arrived on a steamboat from Spain. From then on this tradition grew to be a standardized national celebration for children from all over the country. Black Pete is traditionally dressed in a bright coloured costume, red lips and an Afro wig, donning large hoop earrings and painted in blackface. Needless to point out that the hero of the tradition ‘Saint Nicholas’, is a white man, who is being helped and supported by his servant, ‘Black Pete’. Little kids are led to believe that the Saint arrives from Spain each year, bringing with him loads of presents that he will be going around placing into children’s’ shoes on the eve of 5 December. Black Pete became known as the helper of Saint Nicholas’. He was notorious for going around the crowd and handing sweeties and presents to children and overall, just acting like a cool dude who’s extremely kid friendly.

Activists are connecting the custom with colonialism and slavery that took place in the 1600s. People argue that there’s a lack of education on Dutch slavery and colonialism. This subject lies sensitive amongst the anti-Black Pete protesters. They are feeling offended by the lack of respect Dutch nationals have for their past. They feel that the Dutch do not acknowledge the historical context of the torture Africans experienced back in time. Protesters demand for the Dutch community to acknowledge the problems and to come up with a solution. The main argument is that the Dutch are seen as a very advanced and fair country in which such a form of racism just shouldn’t be accepted. Black Pete developed around 19th century Holland, which was a time in which it was widely accepted that black people should only acts as servants in society. They would work for the rich people in society to emphasize their importance. But hey-ho what are the chances; Black Pete serves the same purpose for Saint Nicholas in present-time! Surely, dressing individuals in frivolous costumes and serving as the servant of Mr. Saint Nicholas shouldn’t be an accepted norm in a society in this day and age?

It was about a year or two ago when the racist traits people linked to the tradition became clear to me. One of my friends shared with me her insecurities whenever it came close to 5 December. Fanny, who was born and raised in Holland but is originally from Angola, told me: ‘whenever I saw pictures of Black Pete and Saint Nicholas in the shops I knew what was coming. As a teenager I always used to dread that time of the year, I did not look forward to it at all. I was scared to put on red lipstick, as people would bully me for looking like Black Pete. The tradition wasn’t enjoyable for me and unfortunately, not many understood my position’. ‘I think it’s very different for someone else to talk about the way this tradition makes black people feel. It’s not nice going around and painting yourself in blackface, it is extremely disrespectful. From my position, it is very difficult to understand when people tell me I am being dramatic by allowing myself to feel this way. You wouldn’t appreciate if I painted my face white, would you? It is so obviously racist, it’s a problem that Dutch people will not acknowledge it’. However, she says that this was not something she would share with others. She only felt she could speak out when the situation got more attention and coverage and when it became a real issue in the Netherlands.

Never having considered such a perspective, the perspective that this tradition could be an event that someone would dread, this revelation came as a complete shock. Just imagining that a tradition that was a part of my childhood could carry a real sense of discrimination with it, even making one of my dearest friends feel anxious, was a turning point for me. It struck me, never having imagined what this day meant for Africans and what sort of memories it brought up for someone of an African ethnic background. Growing up with this tradition never allowed me to think of the controversy surrounding this topic. In our community it was seen as a fun tradition and people considered the tradition as a nice get together and, as if there weren’t enough, another opportunity to spoil your friends with gifts and presents. But a change in the way foreigners are treated in Holland and a greater sense of freedom of speech increasingly led the public to feel they could voice their opinions more and more. Miss Musse, member of the charity ‘Black Pete is Racist’, says: ‘people do not realise that this issue has been long debated amongst the public. The only major change it has experienced is that it is now being introduced into the public domain and a greater number of people are aware of the problem. People are starting to realise that this is a massive debate: a debate that shouldn’t be in the 21st century’.

Over the past few months there have been petitions going around the country to completely abolish the custom, but this was met by lots of protests from both sides. Parliament are still discussing potential solutions but no decision has been reached for now. Organizations are introducing new appearances for Black Pete and with a major supermarket chain already having changed the traditional looks of the Black Pete that appear on their product, this can only be a good step in the right direction. There have also been various protests that have taken place around the country by people for- and against Black Pete, and it seems this will be the case for another few years. Change can be achieved as people are increasingly changing their mind-set, but it won’t be an easy process: it is going to take a long time. As for this year, Sinterklaas and his Black Petes continued with the tradition by arriving from Spain like they have every other year, continuing to fool around as if nothing has ever happened, as if all is good in the Dutch hood.


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