Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sinterklaas with his zwarte piet, a need of color change

Last Saturday at 2:30pm, it was the arrival of Sinterklaas, what Dutch also call Sint Nicholas. It is holiday mainly for kids. Finally I got to know that this Sinterklaas is the origin of Santa Claus in North America. It was celebrated by Dutch immigrants in the place which used to be 'New Amsterdam' in 17th century and is later called the New York City. Slowly, Sinterklaas in US merged together with the Christmas day. In its real hometown, it is still celebrated on Saint Nicholas' eve, Dec. 5th. He is a real person back in the 4th Century: a Bishop in Turkey named St. Nicholas became widely known for his good deed with poor children in Europe. He has been depicted as a tall, dignified man with big white beard, dressed in red vestments carrying a Bishop's golden crook, and riding on a white horse. He also carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been good or naughty in the past year.

Sintterklaas has his helpers, called 'zwarte piet' in dutch, which means 'black piet'. He was St. Nicholas' African servant. In the history, St. Nicholas carried a Birch switch used to punish children who were naughty and Zwarte Piet was said to put bad children in his sack or would leave them a lump of coal in their shoes instead of treats. Nowadays, they are more welcomed as expected gifts from Sinterklaas, and black piet is more like a joker.

Of course, the meaning of black always gives racial connotations. There are a substantive share of black population were from Dutch colonies in Suriname and Morocco. It should be a quite sensitive issue for them. We talked with our land ladies about this, and she totally agreed. When her kids were in school, she would not let them go to this kind of festivals, unless some more liberal schools would like to present some pink or blue piet.

Later it comes a more political correct explanation for the zwarte piet: Piet's face is said to be "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb down chimneys to deliver his gifts to kids). Nevertheless, the tradition has been accused of being racist, and attempts have been made to introduce Gekleurde Pieten (Coloured Piet), who are coloured blue, red, etc., instead of black. According to Wikipedia, this phenomenon of "Coloured Piet" was introduced nationally in 2006. The explanation given for this was that "Sinterklaas passed through a rainbow with his boat.

Now when I look through pictures I took that day, I really couldn't find any ethnically black kids in this event. We saw quiet a lot of kids trying to paint their faces black, wearing black stocks. Some even, were trying to cover their hair with black wig, very curly short hair styles. It is interesting to see how this festival will go as more and more immigrants are part of the society. How long can they tolerate the existence of black piet, and when will all piet become colorful?


Anonymous said...

i work as a teacher in Den Haag A school with kids with all different kinds of nationalities. And we celebrate sinterklaas with zwarte pieten with all those kids.
Zwarte piet being black is not a racist thing, is a old tradition. and not a problem for any of the kids or parents....

Mark Great Britain said...

It seems to me the biggest racists are the people who try to destroy a countries traditions and beliefs when they don't even come from that country. Why should the Dutch change a tradition like Sinterklaas and zwarte pieten just to please a handful of immigrants that say they feel offended by it? As the old saying goes if you don't like what is happening in the country you moved to then go back where you came from. I am unfortunately seeing this all to often here in Britain as boat load after boat load of immigrants come storming in demanding that the British change their traditions and beliefs to adhere to their own. I think its about time that people start to stand up and say No, Not in my country to these ill mannered backward infiltrators that only want to destroy innocent characters like zwarte pieten by playing the all to often used racisum card.