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.

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