When I saw the Weekly Writing Challenge for this week I hadn’t a clue what I should write about so I decided to not participate. As you might understand I have chosen to do so but not after I read an article about the UN wanting to find out if Zwarte Piet is a racist element in the Sinterklaas tradition.
First of all, let me explain the Sinterklaas festivities. Sinterklaas is the Dutch (or European?) equivalent of Santa Claus with the difference that Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmas and he has his birthday on December 5th. Sinterklaas is believed to live in Spain and come to Holland around November with his steam boat, he then comes ashore and tours the city (there is one official Sinterklaas broadcasted on tv and every city has his own officially approved helper Sinterklaas, they all come ashore on the same day) on his white horse. The children are gathered by the thousands to watch this spectacle and rush home afterwards to put their shoe by the fireplace or at the backdoor of the house, then they will sing songs and go to bed. The next morning they’ve got a present in their shoe and the house is a mess because pepernoten are all over the place and the carrots for the horse are also gone. This ‘putting your shoe’ is done again and again till December 5th when there is a big celebration with presents and Sinterklaas might visit your house to see who’s been naughty (they will go with him to Spain) and who’s been nice.
As you see this is quite an operation and Sinterklaas cannot do this alone so he’s helped by Zwarte Pieten, actually white people who got black because they had to get in the chimney to deliver presents in the shoes of the kids. They are also the ones who make a mess of the living room with the pepernoten and the carry the naughty and nice book. Zwarte Piet also punishes naughty children and makes sure they are on board when the ship leaves for Spain. Zwarte Piet is a bit dumb, a bit slow but in fact a really nice guy who hands out candy and helps Sinterklaas.
What got me so aggravated to write this? Well, every year for the last 5 years there has been a group of people who think Zwarte Piet is racist because he’s black and think it is a tradition stemming from slavery, because Sinterklaas is white and Zwarte Piet helps him. They think his looks, curly hair, red lips, golden earrings all derive from Holland’s past in slave trading, owning etc.
I think the protesters think Zwarte Piet is a slave beacause of how he looks and because of the fact that he was first portrayed in the nineteenth century by a schoolmaster who had drawn up both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The Sinterklaas feast is one that has been around for over 700 years, although the modern form is dated in 1850.1 Because the Sinterklaas feast is so old nothing of written evidence is left, which is mostly the case with folklore, we have to rely on Germanic and Eastern European myths who have it that what we now call Zwarte Piet was actually a demon (black because that could be a colour associated with evil) who was enslaved by Sinterklaas. Take in mind that Sinterklaas was a Bishop and later a Saint who protects children, it is a catholic holiday, so the black demon represented the evil which faith could overcome.
A recent study on this topic shows that the blackening of men during the Sinterklaas festivities in the whole of Europe is a tradition which dates back long ago. The researcher, Arnold Jan Scheer, investigated places which didn’t have contact with ‘the world’ way into the nineteenth century and therefore, as Scheer states, have a pure Sinterklaas feast. Scheer also traces the fact that Zwarte Piet is black to the demonic creature it would have been. He also claims, and shows, that Sinterklaas is a very scary feast that was designed to put fear into children and make sure they would be nice the whole year round, so much for the grandpa-like Sinterklaas we now have.
Back to the Zwarte Piet protesters, they have written to the United Nations to issue a investigation into whether or not Zwarte Piet is a racist element in Sinterklaas festivals and should be banished or altered. To be honest, it is one thing that people do not agree with traditions in the land they live in, or have migrated to, but it is another to go to the UN to make your case. One of the leading protester’s, Quinsy Gario, reasons to start this campaign was that his mother was said to be Zwarte Piet around November as a joke ‘we have been wondering where Zwarte Piet was but now he’s finally come’. I understand that this is offensive especially uttered by an adult who should have known better. On the other hand: it was a joke! Friends make fun of me in a way more offensive way than that and I’m not offended by it, suck it up!
No kid, black, white, yellow, purple or whatever colour, in Holland grows up with the believe that Zwarte Piet is racist, they only think about the candy and presents. Zwarte Piet should not be kept in the festivities only for the sake of tradition but for the fact that it is not meant to be racist and never will be: it represents a whole other culture that most people ignore or don’t give themselves enough time to get acquainted with. Things from the past: books, depictions, statues, traditions and the like are artifacts of a different culture and it is wrong and stupid to just ‘label’ our modern ways of thinking on those artifacts. It just shows how not informed people are. Treating the past as a different culture and only trying to understand and not judge it is hard, but worth the while when you discover how great the past was. I think it is sad that a grown man, or all misinformed adults for that matter, allows himself to be insulted that much by a phrase that was intended as a joke and set out to radically alter or banish certain aspects of a children’s feast.
1 Anonymous, ‘Sinterklaas’ Meertens Intituut