Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet have been a part of the Dutch Christmas tradition for centuries - but in the modern world, the practice has taken on many questionable racial overtones.

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Sinterklaas and his helpers

Sinterklaas is, to many people’s surprise, the father of the American Santa Claus and a Dutch ritual.

Sinterklaas arrives mid-November by boat from Spain, where he spends the summer. The story goes that he actually is a Turkish bishop who was canonised at some point. The saint has several helpers, who assist him during the boat trip and when delivering presents to the kids on the evening before St Nicholas day (6th of December).

For the kids Pieten are like Smurfs, every character has a specialty. (Lewis, 42, Expat & Dad of 3*)

This is a very familiar story with a few twists. The Dutch picture the character of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (translated Black Pete) as helper with a controversial black African look: blackface, curly wig, red lips, sometimes Creole earrings. The outfit is colourful, topped of by a cap with feathers and a ruffle like a Renaissance page.

Zwarte Pieten

The Zwarte Piet costume (EnSintClopedie / Wikimedia Commons)

The Dutch version? Racist. In a funny way. (Natasha, 25, Expat*)   If it’s the same racist story [in Suriname], I’m not surprised! (Luke, 39, Expat*)

The appearance of the characters of this story hasn’t changed pretty much since 1850 – which launches year after year a huge discussion amongst foreigners, expats and immigrants to the Netherlands: The representation of a white ‘master’ with black ‘servants’ seems to have obviously racist connotations.

This year, the usual discussion has been overrun by the decision of the former Dutch colony Suriname to ban Sinterklaas completely. Up until now Sinterklaas had been celebrated in Suriname the same way as in Holland: with a white priest coming from Spain on a boat with his black helpers… Evidently, this custom doesn’t fit in a country where white people only account for 5% of the population.

Whilst preparing this article I spoke with a quite a few people – see the quotes lining its sides as a colourful bouquet of opinions. Let’s dive into the story told so many times and see what remains ‘funny’ about it after dissecting the facts…

HISTORY CLASS

THE SAINT

Nikolaos of Myra is known to be a Saint who lived in the 4th century as a bishop in the Greek city of Myra, which is now in Turkey. He was remembered for giving gifts secretly to the poor. The original remains of Saint Nikolaos were brought to Bari, a city in south-eastern Italy. Interestingly, Bari used to be part of the Spanish empire.

Now we know why Sinterklaas comes from Spain and brings presents.

THE HELPERS

Sinterklaas has to cover a lot of ground the night he distributes the presents. No one would argue that he needs helpers, just like his offspring Santa Claus (although here the story is solved in an imaginative way, and therefore goes down easily).

Santa Claus in his imaginative slay (tweber1 / Wikimedia Commons)

Several additions to the story have been used to explain why and where Sinterklaas got them from:

  • The Christian Sinterklaas is thought to be the successor of Odin, a god of the pre-christian Norse mythology, who had two black ravens.
  • German-speaking countries have a similar tradition, in which St Nikolaus has a mean-looking helper.
  • Another story being told is that St Nikolaos freed an Egyptian slave boy on his way, who decided to stay with the Saint to help him with his noble deed.
  • As the Moors used to occupy Spain, where Sinterklaas resides, a Moorish looking fellow in his company doesn’t seem too far fetched.

The name ‘Zwarte Piet’ was officially introduced was twith the controversial black African look by Jan Schenkman through the book Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Sint Nicolaas and his servant, published from 1850). The story now also featured a steam boat and a balloon as modern means of transport. There seem to be various plausible reasons for these amendments:

  • Educational purposes (stick and carrots, visual juxtaposition of good and bad)
  • Highlighting the latest technological achievements (steam boat and balloon)
  • Possibly first global aspirations: The Dutch Colonial Empire could be seen as a  great source of inspiration for strange appearances from far-away countries.

Illustrations from Jan Schenkman’s book “Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht”(published 1850 / retrieved via dbnl.org)

Only after Schenkman’s successful book with colourful illustrations and educational purpose (in print until 1950) the tradition lived on with a Moorish helper, dressed in a colourful outfit similar to a Renaissance page boy.

Attempts to justify Piet’s black face with his task to climb through the chimney to place the presents often fail – his other indispensable accessories are too conspicuous.

From 1850 on, the ‘Zwarte Piet’ was pictured as ethnically black. 

TODAY’S CELEBRATIONS

Kids do not question this. It is the tourists and foreigners who do. This doesn’t play a part in the kids mindset. We are talking 3 to 6 year olds – they do not have any reference about racism. (Jolijn, 33, Dutch & Mum of 2*) 

The celebrations are aimed at children under the age of 8. They receive their presents on the eve before St Nikolaos’ name day (6th of Dec), instead of on Christmas day. The ‘intocht’ (the celebrations when Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain) is a mayor celebration in Dutch towns, pushed by the media (TV, Radio, online…). Some argue that the media have blown up the story for their own cause, hence should be the advocates leading the discussion.

There have been attempts to introduce Regenboog Pieten (Rainbow Petes, with multi coloured faces) in 2006, but these simply were not accepted by the public.

Between Mid November and the 6th of December Sinterklaas and the Pieten are all over Holland. For kids, this is fair enough – yet it seems to become a questionable obsession when shop windows in Amsterdam turn into displays of ‘Zwarte Piet’ dolls sporting in various scenes without the Sinterklaas context. I was shocked when I heard the following, as I was before this not aware of the resemblance of ‘Zwarte Piet’ with ‘Golliwogg’ dolls, which are now banned in the UK:

… 6 to 8 jester dressed black helpers sounded strange….and a bit creepy not to mention racist: The almost vodoo-like black dolls that occupy shop windows are similar to the now banned for racism in the UK ’golliwogs’  - this is what I immediately thought of when I saw them. (Mark, 35, Expat*)

Piet currently occupying shop window displays in Amsterdam

This is where the traditional meaning of the Sinterklaas celebrations fails to align with its visual representation. Images produced in the 19th century to represent an educationally mischievous character are obsolete in the world of today.

INTERPRETATION

The Sinterklaas processions with ‘Zwarte Piet’ characters throwing candy at the audience sometimes has been described as a ‘culture shock’ for foreigners/tourists/expats - the discussion boards on expat websites are full of mentions.

A teacher told me that the international school she works for celebrates Sinterklaas as many of the families do at home. In order to integrate it with other cultures’ festivities around the same time of the year, and to accommodate ethnic differences, they simply refrain from using the term ‘Zwarte Piet’. Instead, any term is allowed that explains the concept of someone helping the Saint, e.g. ‘Helper Piet’. Describing it this way encourages children to express their understanding of the story in more imaginative ways rather than building on set imagery.

Highlighting the essence of Sint Nikolaas’ story helps to shift the focus – the emphasis now clearly lies on the original meaning behind the facade of disputable visual character representation.

SPECULAASTIVE** CONCLUSIONS

There is a fine line between maintaining a tradition, accommodating other views on it or ignoring other people taking offence.

It comes down to the question whether a tradition can be adapted to suit a present day situation without changing its meaning. Now the story of Sinterklaas and his helper in particular has seen many changes since the Middle Ages.

Many argue that for the children’s sake the tradition should remain just as it is. However shouldn’t the focus for both, adults and the children, be on the original concept of Sinterklaas’ story emphasising the good deeds of a holy protagonist – instead of arguing about the appearance of a supporting character?

The combination of a good saint who helps the poor, and its helpers as puckish characters, enforces the educational purpose of learning to distinguish between good and bad behaviour. To get this right might now be more important than ever.

By re-establishing the essence of the traditional story, it should be possible to find new means of visual representation – rather than juxtaposing the skin colours of the characters. How could a modern version of the duo ‘Sinterklaas – Zwarte Piet’ display this contrast?

Maybe this holds a future version of Sinterklaas for the kids of Suriname as well. And who knows, future generations might depict Sinterklaas as the bad character - would this automatically imply a change to Piet’s consideration? Only time will tell.

Sinterklaas and the Petes: Does skin colour determine who is the good or the evil?

* Thanks to all those who answered my questions this weekend. I hope Sinterklaas has nice presents for you tonight.

** Speculaas are the special kind of cookies Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet bring for the children.