Going Dutch – Sinterklaas

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Well here I am again, for the second time, talking to myself about the experience of living in Netherlands.

This time, it’s the seasonal subject of Sinterklaas, which is an interesting one for varying degrees of good and bad. Around this time of year there is an awful lot of discussion about sinterklaas in the Netherlands, which I have observed brings with it either a sense of child-like glee and anticipation or scepticism and suspicion, depending on who you ask.

I’ll try to explain…

To those who don’t know what Sinterklaas is, it basically boils down to this (For those who do know, bear with me while I get my foreigners description over with. I’m going to miss bits out, for the sake of keeping this readable.).

For the sake of familiarity, if there is anything that is close, then Sinterklaas is sort of like Santa Claus… but not at all.
He’s a totally separate guy, and has a complete origin story that is extensive to say the least. He is also a figure that the Dutch masses revere, to an extent, and is somewhat of a celebrity across the country. In fact, Sinterklaas and Kerstman (Santa Claus) both have their assigned separate holiday dates, Sinterklaas on 5th December and Kerstman on the familiar 25th December.

He was originally a bishop in Turkey, where he inherits his attire, and travelled to Spain where he met his friend and servant ‘Piet’ (Peter). Together they travel every year (by steam boat) to the Netherlands during November to reward or punish children relative to how good or bad they are. Good children get pepernoten (coin-sized ginger-spice biscuits) and bad children get sticks or in severe cases they will be taken away (this abduction story I suspect is just a tale to make children behave).

As it is now, Sinterklaas and Piet have a TV show around this time, have a ‘story’ that extends further every year and have impostors in schools (and offices) nationwide.
One of the oddest things about this is the near-celebrity status that old Sint enjoys, and this extends all the way out to the actors, to the extent where the ‘real Sint’ is clearly identified by those who grew up with this tradition.
The real Sint is of course the same actor who has been playing this character annually for over 40 years, meaning that everyone my age or younger recognises this man as the real deal. Everyone else is, clearly, an imposter. An interesting twist on this particular aspect is that last year the actor changed, simply because he’s just getting too old… This changing of the Sint-guard is interesting to observe as the new guy is unproven in the eyes of many and it’s been described to me that he ‘just isn’t the same’. Figures, I guess.

Of course, over the years the story of Sinterklaas and Piet has changed in some minor ways to explain the various oddities of this particular character duo, however, I would say the most change and controversy surrounds Piet.

I’ll try and get straight to the point here.

Peter is black, almost comically, and is referred to as ‘Zwarte Piet’ (in a friendly way). The the blackened nature of Piet seems to be at the core of the controversy surrounding Sinterklaas, and rightfully so of course, but it’s odd as well (Especially to a foreigner such as myself).

It should be noted that ‘the Piets’ (seeing as along the way Piet multiplied into an army of Piets), are also revered to an extent, especially by children. My guess is that this is because the Piets are essentially the hands and eyes of old Sint. They are the ones who go out and deliver presents, or punishments (and likely the aforementioned abductions), for Sinterklaas as he can’t be everywhere at once.

Anyway, over the years I’ve asked many people Dutch and foreigners how they feel about Sint and Piet and I’ve received a wide range of interesting responses that I’m going to attempt to explain.

The first is the classic “it’s wrong/intolerant/offensive/worse” stance that some people take on. It should be noted that this is often by foreigners or those who have darker skin, but not always.
This is a predictable response to those non-white people who witness white people paint themselves comically black (I mean black as the night, with bright red lips attend curly black wig) and dance around. This kind of image has been banned in most civilised countries and has had many guises, all the same ‘look’ that was extremely stereotypical since colonial times. These are people that, within this context, question the tolerant claims of the Netherlands.
There is clearly a somewhat valid point here that this is a tradition from another time that might not be ‘compatible’ with modern multicultural society in its current form.

The other response that I’ve received is the “It’s for the kids” reasoning. In my experience, this usually comes from those who grew up as children celebrating Sinterklaas. It’s part of them, and I think anyone can appreciate that nostalgia they feel when Sinterklaas time is near. They remember as children having that innocent view on the world where it was all fun, presents and pepernoten.
These are also those who I’ve seen become very defensive against those who would (in any way) question the innocence of this tradition. They are the same who wish their own children celebrate this tradition and want to see it continue.
Taken from this perspective it’s obvious why they love it so much.

Me personally, I’m somewhat in the middle ground on this subject. I’ve experienced both sides of this divide for many years now and tried to understand them as best I can. Even I have to admit, though, that I look awkwardly at Piets when I see them in the flesh and it raises a mixed sense of comedy and concern that I can’t shake. I suspect this is the foreigner in me who does not have the lasting memory of seeing this through a child’s eyes. I’ve looked on at this with a smile, from a distance, and I think it is truly unique… I’m just not sure how much longer it can go on in its current form.
I’ve seen and heard the explanations of why Piet is black, but I do think they are based upon a 5 year olds perspective that doesn’t stand up to adult analysis. Maybe that’s the point though, or maybe it’s a poor excuse. I’m not sure.
I do, however, think that there is something inherently wrong with any ‘thing’ that you have to explain “it’s not racist” to anybody. In recent years this discussion has escalated further, even to the point where UN officials have advised Netherlands stop it. I feel that this is going to escalate further in coming years and may risk ruining it, or even become banned if more effort is not made by those in charge to find some solution.

This is because the fact remains that there are many people who have a sense of self identity, based upon their ethnic origin. To these people the tradition of Sinterklaas will always seem intolerant, or worse, racially offensive and there may not be a way around this issue.

I am sure of 1 thing though, and that is the days of this tradition are numbered if it doesn’t become more friendly with those that feel misrepresented by it. By that I mean, it needs to change, somehow. I don’t feel that I have the solution to this issue, but unless someone finds it soon, who knows what will happen. We certainly cant keep ignoring it, as this is an extremely public national event.

I would advise anyone interested in learning about the strange history of Sinterklaas, read the Wikipedia page on it.

I’ll leave with a few YouTube videos.

The first is of a Dutch gentleman who travelled to America to talk to passers by in Alabama about how they would feel about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Its interesting because its done a bit ‘tongue-in-cheek’, with a slight humorous tone. Best of all is the clearly awkward comments of those questioned:

Next is a short spot on TMZ, and is a quite incorrect in many of its claims, like the implied association with Christmas, and ‘Holland’ instead of ‘Netherlands’. Yes, we know, but the reactions of those in the video are important. Big parts of the video are very out of context, which I find concerning, as this is a global video:

Lastly, a Dutch young man who has tried to voice up about the Zwarte Piet/Sinterklaas issue. He puts across a case very well about the verbal acrobatics employed to avoid the subject, as I’ve described here. This one is a bit more serious, but not deadpan.
English speakers, be sure to enable captions (subtitles) as he is speaking Dutch:

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