Saint Nicholas and Black Pete

by Erik Voeten on December 16, 2009 · 12 comments

in Music and Other Popular Culture

sinterklaas.jpg

In my native the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas arrives by steamboat from Spain and distributes presents on December 5th while riding on a white horse over the rooftops. I have little trouble explaining the logic of all this to my American friends, especially when I point out that their “saint” arrives with quite less dignified means of transportation from the North Pole on Christmas (dec. 5 is st. Nicholas’ birthday) . Not to mention the elves.

Jaws drop, however, when I mention that Saint Nicholas (sinterklaas) is helped by a number of black assistants all conveniently named Black Pete (zwarte piet). These assistants carry around big sacks in which they transport candy for the good kids but they also have tools for punishing the naughty who, legend has, may end up in Black Pete’s sack to be transported to Spain.

Most of my American friends need no further proof of the backwardness of Dutch culture. How can a seemingly civilized nation indoctrinate small children with such stereotypes reminiscent of colonialism and the slave trade? Steven Colbert poked fun at it by citing it as a perfect example of “Christmas originalism” (about 1:40 in). Yet in the Netherlands, it hasn’t been all that controversial. Sure, Black Pete has become a lot less silly and a lot smarter in sinterklaas stories. One racist line from a sinterklaas song was removed. The Dutch version of PBS once replaced Black Pete with a rainbow colored version but quickly returned to the old fashioned model. It just isn’t a big deal. On Facebook I can find a “Zwarte Piet must Stay!” group but no group that argues the opposite (the Facebook group mentions unspecified “others” who oppose Black Pete).

I’ll let you guys decide whether this is definitive proof of backwardness or just evidence of a healthy laid back attitude . After all people are perfectly capable of developing racial prejudices without Black Pete. In the mean time, I am going to think about how to explain all this to my daughter, a little Dutch girl growing up in the U.S.

{ 12 comments }

Kathy December 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm

“Six to Eight Black Men” is one of David Sedaris’ funniest monologues. If you haven’t heard it, it is on his “Live at Carnegie Hall” CD.

Roving Bandit December 17, 2009 at 1:29 am

I just discovered this through watching a dutch rom-com Love is All (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468644/).

Fucking crazy.

Amílcar Tavares December 17, 2009 at 6:18 am

You have here a great opportunity to break the cycle. Good luck on that.

Berdawn December 17, 2009 at 9:30 am

“I’ll let you guys decide whether this is definitive proof of backwardness or just evidence of a healthy laid back attitude. After all people are perfectly capable of developing racial prejudices without Black Pete. ”

sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.

Erik December 17, 2009 at 9:52 am

Kathy, thanks for the David Sedaris story, I didn’t know about it (a link is here: http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ1202-DEC_SEDARIS)

Christian Chandler December 17, 2009 at 10:46 am

That David Sedaris story is great. If anyone is interested in learning more about Zwarte Piet, they should check out “>http://alturl.com/438v”> this story from NPR a few years ago.

http://alturl.com/438v

Jeremy Levine December 17, 2009 at 11:46 am

There are plenty of people within the Netherlands who are very much opposed to this tradition, as you can see in this short video I made: http://current.com/items/77141702_jolly-black-slaves.htm

Stentor December 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm

After all people are perfectly capable of developing racial prejudices without Black Pete.

By that logic, any racial caricature — or for that matter, any bit of media, teaching, or social pressure toward racial prejudice — is just fine, since people could become prejudiced without that specific item.

Erik December 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Stentor: of course you are right but this wasn’t meant as a justification but a reference to the general attitude the Dutch tend to have about these things: they just don’t think it matters all that much and hate to create fusses about this. The reaction against anything that even smells like “political correctness” tends to be very strong (e.g. Theo van Gogh).

Amy December 18, 2009 at 9:32 am

What percentage of the Dutch population is black / African descent? Maybe the reason they’re so “laid back” about it is that not many of them have ever been on the wrong end of a racial slur or stereotype.

Erik December 18, 2009 at 9:47 am

Amy: it is small but not insignificant, mostly from former colonies like Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. In Suriname, Sinterklaas sometimes makes an appearance but is painted white! he still has his black petes See some pics here: http://www.kaartje2go.nl/weblog/index.php/fotokaarten/sinterklaas-in-suriname/

LFC December 19, 2009 at 12:06 am

What’s with the “arrives by steamboat from Spain” angle? The Dutch revolted against Spanish rule only to have their St. Nicholas come from Spain?!?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: