Something weird happens in Holland in early December. Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) starts to make his rounds, which isn’t the weird part. He looks like our American Santa, if a gluten allergy kept him from eating all those cookies and he discovered P90X. Still, that’s not the weird part. Sinterklaas’ trusty companion is called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Pete helps the jolly saint determine the good and the bad and deliver presents atop the roofs. Yet still, this is pretty normal. Pete could pass for a D.W. Griffith’s character. We’ve arrived at the weirdness.
And no, this isn’t racist. No. No, really. It isn’t. At least not in the Netherlands. If you’re an American, I’ll give you a few minutes to let the stroke you’re having subside a little. If you’re Dutch, I’ll let you start to get angry, ready to say that I don’t understand your culture.
Want to know a bit more about Dutch culture, by way of Zwarte Piet? I know, a very clever name. Here’s a neat little trick. Do you suffer from recurring amnesia? Does it cause you to forget where and when you are? Is it tearing you apart? Of course it is! Well, you can pinpoint the date and your location if you ever find yourself being approached constantly by people (obviously white) completely covered in black make-up with large red lips, an afro, and Sean Connery’s get-up from Highlander.
“Am I in an American minstrel show in the early 1900s?”
“Don’t be stupid, stupid. Of course you … well, actually maybe.”
“This is tearing me apart!”
“Do the people have annoying facial hair, weird fashion, and seem only to travel by bicycle?”
“Well, then you’re in luck. And you’re certainly not in … Shit. Are there a lot of white belts, silly hats, and guys on the verge of crying over an Arcade Fire song?”
“Hah, take that!”
“Take what? Where am I? This trick sucks.”
You’re probably not in deep in the 19th century American south. Probably a Dutch hipster café around December 5, 2010-ish. I think the point I was trying to make is that the Zwarte Piet phenomenon feels incredibly anachronistic. It’s a tough sell if you’re an American or a black resident of the Netherlands not intimately familiar with the tradition. Some Dutch people will try to brace the image of Zwarte Piet by telling you he’s black because he guards the chimney for Sinterklaas and gets covered in soot. If that explanation does it for you, may I interest you in some of my snake oil?
Stay with me for a few moments as I nerd out. The American image of Santa Claus dates to an 1836 cartoon by Thomas Nast. The plump, jolly image of Santa gained popularity through song and advertising, so much so that many barely know where he comes from. Santa Claus is based on the Dutch Sinterklaas, who is thin, rides a horse, carries a staff and travels with Zwarte Piet. Pete lets him know who has been good or bad, so Sinterklaas can deliver chocolate letters via the chimney to good children on December 5th, the day before his feestdag (feast day, holiday). If you’re a crappy kid, you get coal, or a bundle of birch sticks. If you’re really crappy, Zwarte Piet takes you away in a sack to Spain where you’re beaten with said birch sticks. This may be why the US dropped the Black Pete/punishment part.
The Dutch take their inspiration from St. Nicolas, a 4th century bishop from Myrna, Turkey. He did some pretty saintly things, especially for the poor and unhappy. This jolly, white-bearded religious man in a white dress and red cloak was supposedly born on Dec. 5th or 6th. Now turn to the Germanic god Odin (Wodin), who was also a white-bearded old man that rode an 8-legged horse through the sky to deliver light and wisdom to good people during the darkest days of the year, December. He traveled with two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who sat atop the homes Odin visited, informing him of the good and bad deeds of the mortals.
“Snnoooore. Snnoooore. Oh god! Oh, oh, I just had the worst dream. Someone was droning on about things that no one cares about. It was the worst.”
“Droning? You don’t care about…”
“Nightmares are real!”
Whether in the name of political correctness or to make kids less scared about being kidnapped by Al Jolson, the Zwarte Piet tradition has been watered down over the years. He’s black because he’s a chimney sweep covered in soot, not a Moorish Judge Judy and executioner. He no longer beats and kidnaps bad children; he tosses out pepernoten (gingerbread-ish cookies). Kids probably appreciate it. Less fear is good. But there’s a non-trivial number of expats and local immigrants who are not thrilled about the racist image (real or imagined).
To generalize horribly, many Dutch feel that a criticism of Zwarte Piet is a personal attack on their values or an all out attack on Christmas. They deny any racist connotations. Bear in mind that the Dutch like to remind you of how blunt they are and how un-politically correct they are. So, they either genuinely see no harm in the image or are toeing the line of what they can get away with. The latter is clearly the more irritating proposition. You have a history of colonialism, a large immigrant population, and you claim to be incredibly tolerant and diverse. Even if there is no racist intent, it’s easy to see people are bothered. And, Zwarte Peten are just creepy and sort of weird.
All that said, it could be a lot worse. You could be in Austria and have a goat-headed demon named Krampus follow St. Nick around. He’s large, covered in chains and takes really naughty kids back to his lair and eats them. And you’d be in Austria.