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….
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.