In the Netherlands Sinter Klaas (AKA Santa Claus) arrives by boat from his home in Spain with Zwarte Piet (AKA Black Pete) who is his helper (2014 Tour Schedule here). Why does Santa need this helper? This is what I learned in my Dutch culture class.
You have to understand that St. Nicholas is a Bishop, reserved, and on high–NOT an approachable guy for children and NOT a fellow who would ever climb down a chimney and ruin the robes of his office. Piet is the one that passes on little gifts and messages between the public and the Saint.
Dutch children leave shoes on the hearth with hay and carrots for St. Nick’s horse, and these are in turn filled with small items by Santa’s helper every few days over the next weeks till St. Nicholas Day is celebrated with gifts on December 5th. (Some countries do Dec. 6th which all lightens Santa’s load for getting around the world!) After the 5th Sinterklaas & Pete are retired for another year and Christmas Day is exclusively about family and celebrating Jesus’ birth. (Rarely are presents involved though that is changing as children here grow up with American Christmas movies).
As Santa travels the Dutch countryside on his white horse, hundreds if not thousands of Petes will help turn the dignitary’s visit from a solemn affair into massive street parties. My Dutch culture teacher has played the part of Pete numerous times and thoroughly enjoys interacting with the children and bringing this Dutch tradition to life.
But is this portrayal racist? It’s a sensitive topic for the community and for someone like me who is new here and the mother of four African sons. Cities across the country are responding in different ways, some with Rainbow Piets of numerous colors, some with dark tan Piets, and others declaring (as ours did in the local newspaper) that Zwarte Piet (i.e. Black Pete) will be welcome in their town.
Two movements have sprung up. One to protest Pete and rid the country of a long-standing racist practice. The other applies to Unesco for formal recognition and protection of a cultural tradition. It’s hard for an outsider to know what to think.
Which side of the issue you fall on seems to relate a lot to why you think Pete is black. Is it because he’s a Moor from Spain where Santa lives? Because he was Saint Nick’s servant (perhaps slave) as indicated by the gold earring he used to wear?
Maybe, as some folks tell it, he (or she) actually just looks black because he’s climbed through so many chimneys recently. This is a common explanation the next generation of Dutch folks are passing down, and it also explains why Black Pete is depicted by pale-faces painted black (although not quite so black). Or is Pete related to the Germanic legends of a chained-devil (often depicted as being a black creature) forced to assist its captor, St. Nicholas, who rewards nice children while the devil punishes the naughty.
90 demonstrators have been arrested so far. Clashes in Gouda were reported by the BBC. News channels from ABC to Al jazeera are reporting. Most arrests were for protesting outside the areas designated for that activity and some for “disturbing the peace” in the midst of the festival where the children were.
With only three months in country under my belt, I can say that so far The Netherlands seems to be the least racist place I’ve ever lived (Kentucky, Arizona, Germany, etc). This is interesting considering that some of the worst experiences of discrimination personal friends of mine have told me occurred in Belgium (which also has Black Pete). I haven’t actually been to any of the festivals yet to see if these depictions reinforce negative stereotypes. The Guardian ran an opinion piece by a Dutch woman that certainly gives one pause.
In the US I grew up with white Santa, white elves, and a growing sense that my traditions were fairly one-sided. For my children I wanted a feeling of inclusion rather than exclusion. When I learned from another mother of a movie with James Earl Jones that told the tale of how St. Nicholas got his reindeer, sled and other American traditional elements with the help of Pete, I was intrigued.
This cinematic retelling connects Santa to roots in Holland and has Pete saving Christmas. “Santa & Pete” is now one of our family traditions along with It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman.
Regardless of where you stand in the Zwarte Piet debate, the Santa & Pete movie is a rendition I think most folks can welcome.
Kristin King is an American author recently relocated to the Netherlands. To peruse her novels and author information visit this link