Dutch Christmas: Racist or Family Affair?

When in Amsterdam... - Blogged


When in Amsterdam has realised it's that time of the year again. Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa), when the Dutch celebrate the eve of his birthday on 5 December.

When I first visited Holland. I was amazed by this tradition and totally shocked by the 'Black Petes' running around handing out candy. Black Petes are Sinterklaas's helpers.



Seeing grown European men and women blacken their faces, slap on red lipstick, and jump around helping an old white man took me back to the images of theatre in America in the 19th century making fun of black slaves.

This year I realised I am becoming more Dutch. The Black Petes didn't worry me at all. I saw a small boy dressed in an harlequin outfit with a blacken face. The tourists saw him, took lots of photos and caused a commotion on the bike path. I didn't look twice. This year I didn't get stirred up about the racial undertones of this family holiday. Instead I looked at the happiness in the eyes and on the faces of small children.

The race issue is still heavley debated here in the Netherlands and in Dutch communities around the world. This year 5 people were arrested in Amsterdam for interrupting the arrival parade of Sinterklass. They wore t-shirts that said 'Black Pete is racism'. http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/%E2%80%9Cget-lost-you-black-pete%E2%80%9D-0

In Canada too there was controversy this year regarding the festival.
  New Westminster Sinterklaas event cancelled due to Black Pete Concerns

Most blogs in English, or any language other than Dutch, about Amsterdam or the Netherlands cover this issue at least once. They more or less describe the same main points. Lets cover these points quickly.

Who is Sinterklaas?
St Nicholas - A Greek/Turk who spent his life giving away his objects and helping children in need. The patron Saint of Children, fishermen and sailors.


Where is Sinterklaas from? 
Turkey, the old Greek part but he retired to Spain.


What is Sinterklaas doing in the Netherlands?
He arrives two weeks before his birthday and comes to  reward the boys and girls of the Netherlands if they have been good.


Who are Sinterklaas helpers?
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) there are many of them. They are black with curly dark hair and wear red lipstick. The Zwarte Piets tell St Nick if a child has been good or bad and help carry the old Saint's bag of goodies for good children and beat and put in a sack bad children to take them back to Spain.


What happens on 5 December?
Families meet for lunch or dinner. Simple presents are left by Sint sometimes sarcastic poems are attached to the gifts.

This year I sat down to Sinterklaas dinner. It was a table of 12 people that spanned three generations. I realised that I was the only non-Dutch person at the table. Instead of debating the racist over(under) tones I simply asked them what they liked about Sinterklaas?

Here is what they said about the Sinterklaas festival:
'presents, poems and fun'
'spending time with siblings and parents'
'celebrating with 25 cousins'
'a surprise party for family and friends with lots of food and presents'
' Dutch national day'
'a nice tradition'
'pepernoten, marcipan and other candy that is not good for you'
'as a child we would leave our shoes at the door for three weeks.In the shoe we would put a carrot or an apple or turnip. If we were lucky we would get something in return.'

No matter your standpoint on this Dutch festival it is hard to escape the political debate. What I do know is that children love this holiday. Furthermore, when it comes to dressing up the children always want to dress up as Black Pete rather than Sinterklaas. Black Pete has all the candy and is a mischievous character. Right or wrong you can see why the children love him.

The final word on this topic is left to the gang from the famous Amsterdam comedy house, Boom Chicago.



When in Amsterdam... Enjoy