Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet

There are few Dutch traditions more debated, and more fiercely protected, than the celebration of Sinterklaas. The controversy has nothing to do with the jolly man in the red suit and white beard, but rather around his entourage, a slew of colorful guys named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

sinterklaasThere are as many tales of their origins as there are Pieten. Ethiopian orphans who were saved from slavery by Sinterklaas, chimney sweeps with an aversion to soap and water, Moors who are Sint’s friends and helpers. Whatever story you choose to believe, in real life the Pieten are often Dutch (read, white) natives who paint their faces black, don a curly wig, and carry a switch.

Here we go, y’all! It’s the annual Zwarte Piet debate.

In the pro-Piet camp are the Dutch, who are beyond passionate when they declare Piet to be an innocent, festive tradition and an essential part of their culture. Piet is a lovable fairytale figure, more clown than curmudgeon, and is Sint’s friend, not his slave. He makes kids laugh and passes out candy. What could possibly be wrong with that?

On the other side is pretty much the rest of the planet. Blackface, they claim, has no place in any culture, neither as historical context nor source of entertainment, and Piet is a blatantly racist disgrace. And this from a culture that claims itself to be so modern and progressive?

Honestly, I get both arguments.

My kids and I are Americans. We live in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and we have lots of black friends. No matter how much my Dutch friends and family value their traditions, I can’t come up with a single argument to defend Piet as anything other than politically incorrect.

But my kids are also half Dutch, and our family lived there during their prime Sint-believing years. For three weeks a year, Piet is literally everywhere — in every store, at every school, on every street corner —  and we couldn’t have avoided him if we’d tried. Which we didn’t, by the way. My kids adored Piet, and quite frankly, so did I. It’s hard not to adore someone who’s singing and dancing and handing out free candy.

Each year, the media spreads more images of Zwarte Piet in real time around the globe, and each year, the protests in and outside the Netherlands increase in both volume and vehemence. If you ask me, Zwarte Piet’s days are numbered.

And when he fades from the Dutch streets into the history books, I know it will be a good thing. But I also know I will be more than a tiny bit nostalgic.

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About Kimberly S. Belle

Kimberly Belle grew up in Eastern Tennessee, in a small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. A graduate of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Kimberly lived for over a decade in the Netherlands and has worked in marketing and fundraising for various nonprofits. She's the author of two novels, THE LAST BREATH and THE ONES WE TRUST (August 2015). She divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam. Keep up with Kimberly on Facebook (www.facebook.com/KimberlyBelleBooks), Twitter (@KimberlySBelle), or via her website at www.kimberlybellebooks.com.

Posted on December 7, 2012, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I’m still mad about the White House referring to Christmas trees as ‘Holiday’ tress. I can’t even begin to imagine the debate about this in Amsterdam! 🙂 Thanks for sharing. Kimberle.

    • I was just reading about that on my main source for all things news :: Facebook. 😉 There’s a fine line we walk between cherishing our own cultures and traditions, and being politically correct / socially sensitive. The answers are not always easy!

  2. Interesting perspective as America wages war on Christmas. Thanks for sharing traditions from another corner of the world.

    • Exactly, Christy. And as soon as religion becomes involved as with Christmas (Sinterklaas was a bishop, but the celebration has no religious undertones), things become even more heated. On all sides!

  3. Very interesting post, Kimberle. I’d never heard of this but when I saw the title of your post, I thought, “What the heck is this?” Now I understand the controversy behind it. And when you pair religion and history and political correctness, you get…..

    • Thanks for reading, Patti! The good news is Sinterklaas isn’t a religious holiday, but it’s certainly controversial, even among the Dutch.

  4. What a mess. It won’t take long before the outrage over Black Pete morphs into the same crazy mad radical Islamics display when someone cartoons about Mohammad.

  5. I hope not, Laura. There are major discussions in the NL (from regular citizens all the way up to politicians) about doing away with Black Pete, or at the very least transforming him into Petes of all skin colors. Things are on the brink of change, IMO.

  6. I remember learning about this tradition in school, Kimberle. It’s a shame when traditions are harmless but questioned and put into a bad light by people. The way things are going, some day traditions will be banned. Yikes!

    • Right, Sheila. And Sinterklaas such a happy celebration in the Netherlands, there’s something very sad about the bad connotations that are building. I’d love to see Pete transform into a less controversial figure, but still keep his lovable personality. We’ll see…

  7. So interesting! I’ve not heard of Piet before, but am caught up in the innocent magic just reading about him. Thanks for sharing this story, Kimberle.

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