Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet Debate

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….

Piet

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas is a holiday celebrated the first week of December along the northwest coast of Europe. So in Belgium, Sinterklaas brought children treats and sweets way before there was ever a Christmas or Santa Claus in North America. 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 rides in on a horse 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 Peter”).

Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas everywhere and sometimes there are more than one Zwarte Piet, like clones. Zwarte Piet is always dressed like a jester and often a white man with black face paint, like the one pictured above, as opposed to an actual black man. Technically, it’s actually supposed to be white man who’s covered in soot from coming down your chimney and not an actual black man but…

You can probably see why I’ve been waiting on blogging about this. While I’ve been waiting there’s been hype rising about the “racism” of it all. 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. I wish I didn’t have to factor into any of this at all, being a Korean-American woman living in Belgium, but I do. Whether or not “Sinterklaas’s black helper” is abolished from holiday traditions I’m still going to have to explain it to my son Noah at some point…

Alas, in my household, Noah will grow up with both Sinterklaas and Santa Claus for a number a of reasons. Is it because I want to instill American traditions as milestones in our family history? Yes. If there was a Korean Christmas tradition I’d do that too. Is it the Christmas carols? Totally. Hopefully I’ll teach Noah a few on the piano if he’s willing and older.

But it’s mainly because I want Noah to grow up with reindeers in addition to 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. It’s the adults who are racist who take Zwarte Piet and turn him into something children shouldn’t have to know about. There’s plenty of time later to explain origins and histories and how Zwarte Piet came about, but instead the focus right now is racism.

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. Even in America where sports teams are renamed to be socially sensitive yet racism is exploited for television ratings at a whim.

I’m not black, but if I was black I’d probably want Zwarte Piet gone so all the racist fucks would stop using it as a slur disguised as a joke. If I was black man I’d get annoyed with all the little kids pointing at me come Sinterklaas season, thinking I’m Zwarte Piet. This happens. It’s happened to our black friends here. It’s been in the news too. Children, innocently or not, often “spot” Zwarte Piet all over the city come December. He’s a part of the Sinterklaas story, but Zwarte Piet is also the subject of debate right now.

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 are taken away for nothing in return because grown-ups made it racist. Now that I’m a parent I’m willing to educate Noah when it comes to hate.

And love too.

Always dishing,

Jun

23 Comments

  1. I learned something new again from your blog. I had no idea about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. My first impression is the same one you had when you first moved to Belgium. Sinterklaas looks like a combination of Santa Claus and a priest. It’s a shame that an innocent children’s story has been turned into something so negative.

    Reply
    1. Jun Song Author

      There’s a history to the story and not just made up. However in present day it’s come to a point where people want change…but of course others don’t. 🙂

      Reply
      1. It’s hard to teach about racism (and the evils thereof). I realized this when my son was in Kindergarten. He came home one day after a lesson on Rosa Parks and told me “Mommy, did you know Blacks are supposed to sit in the back of the bus?” It was a teachable moment for me. We never know what small nuggets they are going to absorb, and we need to help them straighten it all out.

  2. Anonymous

    When I was a kid (back in the seventies), my father was stationed (Canadian military) in the Netherlands. We lived for three years in Kerkrade, a small town on the German border. I have fond memories of Sinterklaas arriving by boat from Spain. We put out our shoes, and always got treats, never the switch (bad kids got a switch for their parent to hit them with, like the north american lump of coal, and if you were bad several years in a row, they would take you away to work in the factories in Spain)

    And yes, as a kid the blackface didn’t phase me at all. Now, it’s a little creepy, although I assume it comes from the time when there *were* blacks living in Spain (Othello, anyone?)

    Reply
    1. Jun Song Author

      Yes. That’s totally what I meant by there being explanations for everything. But unfortunately the story’s been passed down to headlines 🙁

      Reply
  3. Funny story: When I was in Junior High (in Southern California), our church choir did their Christmas program based on Sinterklaas. It was great to learn about other cultures’ traditions, and the horse and the wooden shoes. But our rather proper, preacher’s wife choir director was flustered because in our all-white congregation she just could not find herself a “little black peter.” My mom was good friends with her, and found it so amusing every time very innocent Preacher’s Wife Nancy said “little black peter.” My mom kindly educated me what a “peter” was. 🙂

    I’m so sorry to hear the ugliness of racism has crept into a sweet holiday tradition, one that I was always glad to have learned about.

    Reply
    1. Jun Song Author

      I wish I’d known about Sinterklaas sooner! Very cool story. Thank you for sharing 🙂

      I think racism is mostly muted but prevalent. Zwarte Piet is an eyesore and a source of anguish for some. I look forward to seeing how the UN rules.

      Reply
  4. Megan from WI

    Little kids love to point shit out. “Hey look, a white man with a beard, he must be Santa!” “Hey look, a little person, it must be an elf!” “Hey look, a man with only one leg, a shark must have bit it off!”

    Reply
  5. Applause. Well-balanced story. Love the kids’ perspective, as well as the historical perspective. It is at the heart of an old culture, but subject to change. It can’t be forced upon this society, the change will come from within, gradually, over years. It has never been static. But black, blue, orange or white: Pete is there to stay.

    Reply
  6. Donna

    This is a tough one. But you can’t change history to please everyone. It’s going to make someone angry matter what’s decided. Keeping Peter out of government places & schools is a given but there are going to be folks that follow tradition. It’s kind of like the disgust 99.9% of people have for WBC but they have the right to their beliefs. This one isn’t going to be settled quickly or easily.

    Reply
  7. vivi howe

    As I saw the intro, I said to myself, oh here it comes. I loved sinter klaas and zwarte piet. They visited our school every year when i grew up there and when they entered they threw pepernoten. Ofcourse sinterklaas had a list of good and bad children. Back then we had very few bad kids. I must say we were well behaved and had great respect for our elders. We put our shoe by the fire place (in our case) a heater (kachel). We did not care about the color of zwarte piet, after all he comes down th chimney and the black soot would even make a Caucasian black. Now for those who spurn a very old tradition I say go find another cause and don’t spoil it for a country or 2 who enjoy it. Maybe we should get rid of one of your traditions, say thanks giving. Anyway, I did get reprimanded by a black person at work, when some one asked me about my culture and childhoid memories. She (the black woman) got higly offended and I said it has nothing to do with being black and slavery. I was highly offended by her attitude for not acknowledging differences in culture and being so butt hurt over something so innocent (to me at least) in california the dutch still celebrate sinter klaas at their occassional parties. To those who don’t like it, well you know what you can do with your opinion. I do believe there are still dutch in new york who adhere to their old custom. And as far as the u.n. is concerned, well I will leave that for another day.

    Reply

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