Every country celebrates the holidays differently – some traditions we love, such as the increasingly popular German markets and omnipresent Christmas trees. Then there are others, those that we like to distance ourselves from. Zwarte Piet, a figure of the Dutch holiday season, is one of these examples.
Whilst Zwarte Piet is the assistant of Sinterklaas, which we immediately link with Santa Claus, they don’t strictly have anything to do with Christmas. However, it does form part of the broader “holiday season”. Sinterklaas comes and delivers presents on the 5th or 6th of December to children in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, some provinces of Northern France, and the Netherlands Antilles. It functions slightly differently in different regions, but this is generally the main gift giving time of the whole holiday season, in some regions presents arrive on the Saint Nicholas’ Eve (the 5th), whereas in other regions children put out their shoes the night before, and the next morning presents arrive often with humourous poems.
This all seems quite innocent, it’s very similar to our Father Christmas or Santa. However, there is a very crucial difference. Whilst Father Christmas comes by reindeer and sleigh from the North Pole and has a group of elves as his helpers, Sinterklaas comes by boat from Spain with a group of Zwarte Piet as his aides.
Zwarte Piet means Black Pete. And yes, it is what you think. Something that in the UK is generally seen as outdated, racist, and pretty dreadful: Blackface.
Around mid-November (the first Saturday after the 11th) Sinterklaas arrives by Steamboat to the Netherlands, and parades around the streets or on the canals, along with the Zwarte Piets handing out pepernoten (ginger biscuits). The Zwarte Piets are generally men in black face with red lips, a curly afro wig, and golden earrings. It’s hardly a subtle caricature – and one to many of us that seems outdated, offensive, and reminiscent of the gollywog dolls that you sometimes saw on TV or in your Grandparent’s attic. However it is often argued that Zwarte Piet is not black, his face is sooty from coming down the chimney. But let’s be honest here, there’s a big difference between Zwarte Piet and Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
When I was studying abroad in the Netherlands, this was something I was aware of and it hugely bothered me – especially when models of Zwarte Piet were placed in dining hall. However, nothing compares to going out for brunch one weekend morning and in the bagel shop there were children as young as two or three dressed as Zwarte Piet. Two or three year olds wearing blackface. It is something that just makes you so uncomfortable to see.
When most people think of the Netherlands they probably think of tolerance, of weed, sex work, and LGBT rights – and in many respects it probably is more liberal. However, not if you don’t fit the respectable ‘normal’ – there is a huge culture of Islamophobia, which is true of most, if not all, of Western Europe, combined with racism. It is a hugely white society, and this is one of those times I think this really shows. 93% of people do not see Zwarte Piet as racist – despite a UN committee ruling it discriminatory and urging them to remove it.
They say its tradition – and to that I say slavery was a tradition. Stoning adulterers was a tradition. The right of a husband to rape his wife was tradition. Tradition is often used as an excuse to justify practices that aren’t really acceptable in modern day society, I mean we saw that excuse being brought out over and over again during the same-sex marriage debates. I think the same reasoning applies to Zwarte Piet.
In a short documentary about reactions to Zwarte Piet in the UK, Russell Brand described it as “a colonial hangover” – and you know what, I think he got it spot-on.