The Dutch festival of Sinterklaas is my favourite festive occasion of the year, but in recent years Sinterklaas has received a lot of international criticism for the use of blackfaced characters called ´Zwarte Pieten,’ ´Black Petes´. I will explain how Sinterklaas is celebrated, what the debate surrounding the Zwarte Pieten entails, and what the Netherlands has done to make Sinterklaas more inclusive.
This is how the story goes… Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten live in Spain, but every November they travel to the Netherlands by boat. Sinterklaas is an old white man in red bishop attire who, like Santa, decides who has been good or bad, and Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ helper who bakes spicy biscuits and packs presents. From November on, they visit every school, some shops and even some homes to give candy and presents to all children. And on ‘pakjesavond’ or ‘present-night’ on the 5th of December, they bring presents to your house. To me, the Zwarte Pieten were the best part: they ran and jumped around the classrooms and threw spicy biscuits everywhere and gave presents to everyone!
However, there is more to the story of Zwarte Piet that must be addressed. The story goes that if you set your shoe next to the fireplace and sing Sinterklaas songs really loudly, Zwarte Piet will climb through your chimney and put a present in your shoe. The chimney makes all Zwarte Pieten look ‘as black as soot’. In reality, however, this means that white people paint their faces black to play the Zwarte Pieten.
The UN has been investigating Zwarte Piet for years, but it was only in 2015 that the UN urged the Netherlands to take an active stance against Zwarte Piet. It was only around this time that I, too, realised that a blackface caricature with bright red lipstick and a curly black wig was racist… I wonder how I did not see it before. Unfortunately, it is unclear exactly where this caricature originated from. However, none of the options reveal a happy side of history.
A large group of people are still in favour of painting their faces black to play Zwarte Piet. They argue that there is no racist intent, and that suddenly changing the skin colour of a Zwarte Piet is too hard to explain to their children. Or, if Zwarte Piet only has black stripes on his face, their children might recognise the person who is dressed up as Zwarte Piet and lose their belief in Sinterklaas altogether. If the worry is that children will be able to recognise the person in disguise more easily, I personally think that this won’t be an issue, given that, as a six-year-old I didn’t even recognise my dad dressed up as Sinterklaas at school because I was nervous as a child. I found out years later!
Thanks to the UN, many black Dutch people have been comfortable enough to speak up about the racism they face because of Zwarte Piet and as a consequence of the debate over this racism, there have been a number of changes in the portrayal of Zwarte Piet. First of all, they are now often called Pieten, ‘Petes’. Many people, businesses and even city councils only accept rainbow-coloured Pieten or Pieten with only subtle black stripes on their faces. Facebook and Google have banned all Zwarte Pieten content and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao has replaced Sinterklaas with a national children’s day. I personally think these are incredibly positive changes and I hope that soon everyone can enjoy the festivities in December as much as I do.
Julia Van Egmond