Tuesday, November 29, 2005


It is quickly nearing December 5th and the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas (or St. Nicolas Day). I am not one to insult any culture’s holidays, but this one rubs me the wrong way, and has since I was introduced to my first Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) 4 years ago.

In Holland Christmas is a low-key affair, and Sinterklaas attracts the most festivity (though the commercialism of Christmas is slowly taking hold here too). For the weeks leading up to the holiday, white haired Sinterklaas (similar to Santa, but thinner, dressed as a bishop and slightly less jolly) are seen all over the streets accompanied by their man-servant, Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet is usually a white person with their face painted in layers of dark makeup wearing a fuzzy wig and sporting thick red lips. They always wear colorful costumes and are adorned in gold earrings and feathered hats. They are also often portrayed as simple almost childish people. Their roll is to assist Sint by delivering presents down chimneys and recording the names of naughty and nice children in the book of names. On the evening of Sinterklaas children who have been good receive presents from the white skinned Sint, and naughty children are told they will be put in bags and taken back to Spain by the black skinned Zwarte Piet.
Most Dutch don’t seem bothered by the black skinned character and most lightly claim that Zwarte Piet has black skin from sliding down the chimney, though one would think that if the black is really soot, Zwarte Piet would also have sooty clothing and there would be no need for the kinky hair and fat red lips. Most outsiders, like me, though see the character as an old fashioned stereotype and a racist symbol. The real origins of Zwarte Piet are unknown, but it is said that he is most likely Saint Nicolas’ Moorish servant.

What I find hard to reconcile is this obviously racist character with the very liberal attitude of most Dutch. I mean Holland was the first country to allow gay marriage, and both marijuana and prostitution are legal. The thing is that the majority of Dutch are not racist, and they do not see Zwarte Piet as a racist symbol. Parents who paint their children’s faces black for the occasion are not doing something they see as racist. This is just a tradition dating back many years and they see no need to do anything to change it. Yet when you ask most Dutch from Surinamese or Antilles ancestry, they do not celebrate the holiday with their children at home. To me this says that they do find the character offensive.

My problem is though, what to do with my daughter? She is too young to enjoy the holiday, though we will celebrate it this year with Mr. P’s family. But in the years to come what will I do when she wants to paint her face black like Zwarte Piet because all her friends at school are also doing it? I do not plan to boycott the holiday, and will allow her to celebrate the day both in school and with Mr. P’s family (since we plan to spend most every Christmas with my family in the US, I would not deny his family the holiday festivities with their grandchild). I will even buy gifts to put in her shoe from Sint. But I draw the line at painting her face black. How, and when (if at all) should I explain to her my objections to Zwarte Piet? Or am I just being too American and too overly sensitive, too PC in my reaction? What would you do?

posted by Laura @ 12:03 PM   5 comments