Autumn traditions for 2014 – 1: Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

The sun did not yet go under for the Summer 2014 or Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), Sancta Claus, the Santa, and all Winter presents were already to be found in the shops. In Flanders in May we had already a garden centre which presented a huge Christmas show, with all the new decoration gadgets for December 2014. That month there was also lots of protest having to be confronted as consumer with the Christmas period, whilst Summer had yet to start.

Intocht van Sinterklaas in Amsterdam

Sinterklaas and his servants in Amsterdam

In the Low countries we for centuries do have a children festival where on the night of 5 December presents are brought by a so called saint Nicolas and his servants who are called “zwarte pieten” “black guys” (often translated in English as Black Peters or “Black Pete“, thinking a Piet is the name of a Peter or Pete instead of the slang for a worker or guy, a toff, a bigwig or “Johnnie”). This labourer who helps to make, transport and delivers the presents by going through the chimneys, by which he becomes so black, has been the dispute already since 2012, but got in real high discussion last year. We thought we had seen it all, but this year many communities bear the consequences from the zwarte Piet” (“Black Pete”). They are afraid to have black persons standing next to Sinterklaas on the ship or on the road, on horses close to Sinterklaas risking to receive a fine or to be put in jail. Those against the colour of the ‘black petes’ have clearly forgotten that the white bishop had worked in Turkey and brought his helpers from there en from Spain, where he found Moors or Moroccan people who were willing to help him to bring goods to the poor and need, plus to the small children who could be made happy with a surprise.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan had to hear in July that the Amsterdam District Court found the character of Zwarte Piet a racist caricature.. He was advised to reconsider his licensing of the annual Sinterklaas parade where the Saint enters the city on a boat with several balck sevants on the deck. In August van der Laan got back to them and said that the character of Zwarte Piet would change over the next four years; the black paint, red lips and afro wigs would be ‘toned down’.

On television several shopkeepers declared even not willing to sell black greasepaint these months, because it could be associated with them liking a Black Pete, and as such being ‘discriminating black people’. What those people against the black Pete do not want to see is that the blackness of the person has nothing to do with discrimination or by preferring black slaves. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is a helper and not a slave of Saint Nicholas. Either on the 5th of December (in Holland) or the 6th of December (Holland and Belgium -except some parts of Flanders, Holland, North France and German districts, where they have Sint Maarten on the 11th of November in) several children in the Low Countries look forward for  Saint Nicholas’ Day (6 December) where they can have a day where they can play freely with their presents of ‘the holy man’.

The whole situations seems to get out of hand when we do hear that even people are receiving death treats on both camps. In August the judicial advisor to the anti-Zwarte Piet movement, Frank King, removed himself from the judicial process around the issue after receiving several death threats, the Algemeen Dagblad reported. In an interview with the AD, King says that his heart is still in the case, and that he may get involved again some time.

“If the topic makes it to the European Human Rights Court, they can call me”,

King tells the AD.

Every one should have to have the right to have a defence layer or professional advisor, not having to mean that this adviser totally agrees with the person he talks for. from Leiden is done. Frank King believes that there is some kind of schism between what he thinks he is doing, and what others think he’s doing.

“I seem myself as lawyer of the counter-movement against Zwarte Piet. But the supporters see that differently. They now see me as the face of the counter-movement. And are directing their anger at me.”

Recently, the lawyer has received threats and abuse on all levels of communication. He receives the worst by mail. He is threatened, and he is abused because he has parents from Suriname.

“One mail said that I should have been put on a 17th century slave ship, just like my ancestors.”

King has had enough of the abuse, as well as the case, which is taxing in time. Though King does emphasize that he is proud of his involvement, and proud of the progress made.

Geert Wilders and his followers do have a problem with coloured people and made it that several Dutch people have become weary about the black coloured people and traditional black figures. In Belgium and Holland or the Netherlands we even do not know any more what we are allowed to say for a person with an other skin than the Caucasian race. There was a time we were not allowed to say ‘zwarte’ (‘black’) any more and had to say ‘neger’ (niger) but then this was not as seen as polite any more so ‘negro type’ and ‘negroïde’ were introduced. After a while this was not done any more and we had to use “immigrant” (“immigrant”) but soon this was considered to be a sobriquet and was to be replaced with “allochtoon” (foreign, alien, allochthonous), which is now also nearly becoming a nickname or giving a sign of ‘giving the other person the stigma’ of being a ‘profiteer’. This really indicates in our regions we are getting a real race problem.

Sinterklaas en ZwartePiet

Classic drawing of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Saint Nicholas and Black Pete) every young person in the Low Countries formerly grew up with

For centuries at schools across the country, children sang songs referring to the skin tone and character of the black servant “…even if I’m black as coal I mean well…”, “Saint Nicholas, enter with your black servant”, etc,. Many object that in some old songs about Zwarte Piet, he is presented as not being a very clever boy, even  being a little bit stupid, a little bit clumsy, more akin to a child than an adult, the same generalisations previously applied to black people, but which can no longer be made explicitly.

Now nothing may be black any more or it would be associated with denigration. As a joke in 2012 already a funny video was introduced where a “zwarte piet” was presented as a worker you could hire or buy to do all the little and harder works in the household and at the office or could even be used as you masseur or “puppy” or “doll” in bed.

The whole situation became so ludicrous that several funny video’s turn up and even companies are making advertisement spots, like we could see one, last night for fund recruitment for cancer treatment, where we could see a “Zwarte Pieten” training school in Africa which had lost so much money because nobody wanted a black Pete any more, they nearly could continue working but a solution was found having new recruits with white bold children wanting to learn for ‘piet'[(Sorry no video available of this (yet)].

Concerning supermarkets not willing to present anything any more which refers to ‘Zwarte Piet’ a satirical video was already placed on Youtube. It was first presented on The PowNews of October 9, 2014: The Albert Heijn wants Zwarte Pietwegjorissen” (take them out of the picture), but the helpers are not pleased with it and do not want to give up their job, which they like very much. Therefore a boycott was set up before the Alber Heijn supermarkets by the helpers of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in Appie, Oostzaan.

  • Geert Wilders wants mandatory blackface at Dutch festival (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
    If Wilders wants to ban changing songs’ lyrics, then he will have very much work to do. Throughout history, old songs have been adapted with new lyrics. Protestant churches in the Netherlands and elsewhere have changed the lyrrics of their hymns and psalms frequently. Does Wilders want to jail the Protestant dignitaries responsible for that? He can’t jail all of them, as most are already dead. The Belgian national anthem’s lyrics have changed many times.
  • Santa’s helper is a racist caricature (newint.org)

    It’s been a month since Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan announced his decision to cancel Christmas. Or at least that’s how Anneka Hendriks laughingly describes it to me. Hendriks is one of the hundreds of people in Amsterdam who enjoy painting their faces black, donning afro wigs and gold hoop earrings, and celebrating the festive season by masquerading as Zwarte Piet (Dutch for ‘Black Pete’).

    ‘Hundreds’ is a conservative estimate; it’s probably more like thousands or tens of thousands when the rest of the Netherlands is taken into account.

  • The Netherlands plan a nationwide consultation on the controversial Black Pete tradition (independent.co.uk)

    The Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands has announced that he will be organising a consultation on the role that ‘Black Petes’ should play during the festive opening of the Sinterklaas season this year.

    Minister Lodewijk Asscher plans to bring relevant parties together to discuss possible changes to the controversial tradition ahead of the televised event on 15 November. The talks will include the national broadcaster and the council of Gouda, the host town.

    Asscher says: “Last year things were very polarised. Everyone should be able to enjoy the festivities again.”
    +
    The Dutch have indeed taken a clear stance in defence of their beloved Pete. The Prime Minister Mark Rutte reflected the feelings of the majority of the population when he responded to criticisms by saying: “Black Pete, that already says it, he’s black. We can’t change much about that”.

  • Dutch ‘Zwarte Piet’: Innocent Holiday Tradition or Inadvertent Racism? (ny.thedailydigest.org)
    When I was a little kid (“little” being ages 10 through 17), I lived in the Netherlands Antilles and in the Netherlands. That was back in the 50s.
    +
    I remember them (sometimes there were dozens of them) running and clowning around with their burlap sacks — scaring the daylights out of some little kids might be a better term — in parades, shopping centers and, as legend had it, coming down the chimney while you were sleeping.
  • Dutch ‘Zwarte Pieten’: Innocent Tradition or Inadvertent Racism? (themoderatevoice.com)
    going back 60 years, Zwarte Pieten were white adolescents with painted black faces (supposedly from the soot picked up scaling down all those chimneys), thick, painted-on, bright-red lips, lots of frizzy black hair, many other “ornaments” such as big gold hoop earrings…and beautiful Dutch blue or green eyes. (No colored contact lenses in those days).

    They were Sinterklaas’ knechten (servants) who would help Sinterklaas deliver sweets and gifts to those kids who had behaved throughout the year and would leave only a lump of coal for those children who had not been very nice. Legend and rumor also had it that they would stuff kids who had been naughty and bad into their burlap sacks and haul them back to Spain, or Morocco, or Turkey or wherever current folklore had it that the Zwarte Pieten came from.

  • The Dutch Christmas with Zwarte Pieten in Blackface (usslave.blogspot.com)
    From Forbes, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Piet-ing: Dutch Santa’s Blackface Elves,” by John Giuffo (Contributor), on 4 December 2012 — Christmastime in Amsterdam has a special kind of magic, and a unique kind of controversy.
     +
    White lights slide down buildings and arch across shopping streets, multiplying their twinkle in canal reflections. No garish multi-color, animatronic ego contests anywhere. You will hear Christmas music, but you’re not assaulted, and dreams of restraining orders against Bing Crosby never fill your head (unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of his children). No one is trampled in shopping frenzies, no one gets arrested for assaulting line-cutters, and the gift giving comes in early December, separate from the more low-key holiday of the 25th. Family members write sardonic poems for each other. Poems! Glühwein – a sort of hot Christmas sangria – warms hands and bellies. And Sinterklaas arrives not on a reindeer-pulled sleigh laden with loot, but on a white horse, accompanied by a small cohort of his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes – white revelers coated in blackface.
  • Virtual Advent Tour & Giveaway: The Dutch Celebration of Sinterklaas (leeswammes.wordpress.com)
    Sinterklaas has been a tradition in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. Originally, this bishop came to bring money to the poor, but these days it’s a children’s celebration.
    +
    Just like lots of children all over the world believe in Santa Claus, in the Netherlands it’s Sinterklaas they believe in and usually stop believing in around 7 or 8 years’ of age.
    +
    Zwarte Piet has sweets in his bag (although in the old days he would use his bag to transport naughty children back to Spain!), notably pepernoten, which are small, slightly spicy biscuits (cookies). Usually Zwarte Piet will throw these around and kids collect them from the floor (when outdoors they get a fistful in their hand).

    Pepernoten

  • Sinterklaas, A Historically Correct (But Politically Incorrect) Children’s Tradition (urbantimes.co)
    The Dutch picture the character of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (translated Black Pete) as helper with a controversial black African look: blackface, curly wig, red lips, sometimes Creole earrings. The outfit is colourful, topped of by a cap with feathers and a ruffle like a Renaissance page.
    +
    This year, the usual discussion has been overrun by the decision of the former Dutch colony Suriname to ban Sinterklaas completely. Up until now Sinterklaas had been celebrated in Suriname the same way as in Holland: with a white priest coming from Spain on a boat with his black helpers… Evidently, this custom doesn’t fit in a country where white people only account for 5% of the population.
  • be what you want to be (piadrent.blogspot.com)
    The helpers are called ‘Black Petes’ and they are funny and a bit stupid.

    This may have been fine half a century ago, but in today’s day we find that discriminative and offensive. So there is a restyling movement for Black Petes happening right now. First, we will be calling them Petes, and second, their skin tone is becoming more flexible.