It’s taken me nearly three Christmases here in Belgium to blog about this at all. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.
I’m finally tackling it….
What Is Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas is a longstanding holiday celebrated on the 6th of December, along the northwest coast of Europe. So way before there was ever a Christmas or Santa Claus in North America, Sinterklaas brought Belgian and Dutch children treats and sweets. We always forget how young America is, as a country, and Canada too. It’s not often that we think about how old the rest of the world is compared to “our own” little world.
Sinterklaas is also the name of the old white man pictured above. When I first moved to Belgium I thought, wow Sinterklaas is just Santa Claus dressed up like a religious wizard! That’s probably the extent of the similarities between Sinterklaas and good ole St. Nick. This figure Sinterklaas comes by boat from Spain, and not on a flying sleigh from The North Pole. He does not have reindeer or elves, but he does have Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”).
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are inseparable. Because, tradition.
Who Is Zwarte Piet
There are many explanations as to who Zwarte Piet actually is, in relation to Sinterklaas, and the likeliest of answers is that he was essentially a slave. Or an indentured servant, at the very least a “helper.” And there’s nothing wrong with portraying things as they were in history. We cannot change the past. Slavery happened.
Fast forward to present day…
Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas everywhere and sometimes there are more than one Zwarte Piet, like clones. He is almost always a white man in blackface and dressed like a jester, like the one pictured above, as opposed to an actual black man. He always has some kinky afro wig on, with big plastic lips. And unless you’re a complete moron, or deliberately ignorant, it’s obvious that present-day Zwarte Piet is some racist caricature of what a black man is supposed to be.
So now the “argument” is that Zwarte Piet isn’t really black, but he’s a Spaniard or a white man covered in soot from coming down your chimney…
Many, mostly in Holland and on Facebook, are calling for the end of Sinterklaas’s sidekick Zwarte Piet.
Even the United Nations in now deliberating on this “Zwarte Piet tradition,” as it relates to tradition versus heritage. It’s one of the hotter topics over here right now. It’s hard to explain it away in one blog, but it’s also hard to cry out for the end of a tradition spanning centuries. Ending Zwarte Piet doesn’t end racism. Racism never dies.
Removing Zwarte Piet from the public eye will not solve anything if there’s only a gaping hole in his place. You know this world is fucked up when innocent children’s stories might be taken away for nothing in return, because grown-ups made it racist. Whether or not “Sinterklaas’s black helper” is abolished from holiday traditions, I’m still going to have to explain it all to my son Noah at some point…
I want Noah to grow up with reindeers in addition to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.
To children, it wouldn’t matter what color Santa or Sinterklaas’s helpers were. I could have cared less as a child if the person helping me get my presents was black or blue or elf or mouse. It’s the adults who ruin everything.