Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes): Do the Dutch need a winter revolution?

The tradition of Sinterklass has this year proved most controversial amongst the student media in the Netherlands as Pandeia explores…

An old man with a long, white beard, a red suit and matching hat handing out presents. No, this is not Santa Claus. The Dutch have their own traditional winter holiday: Sinterklaas. Every year in November the Saint and his helpers known as Zwarte Pieten (translated as Black Petes) hop on a boat packed with sweets and presents in Spain to take over the Netherlands for three weeks. Kids put their shoes near the chimney and sing Sinterklaas songs before they go to bed, hoping to find their footwear filled with surprises the next morning. Whoever behaves well throughout the year will be rewarded. The holiday reaches its climax on the 5th of December, when Sinterklaas celebrates his birthday by delivering presents and the grown-ups arrange surprises and poems for each other.

However, the Sinterklaas tradition is surrounded by controversy because of the black-faced Zwarte Piet. According to some critics, the origins of this character go back to the Dutch period of slavery.  Others believe that Piet is black because of the coal that leaves its traces as the helper enters houses through the chimney.

The last few years there has been an annual discussion surround the question of whether Zwarte Piet is an outdated and racist character. This seems have been ratcheted up a notch this year, since the UN is investigating the case. The Dutch student media has been captivated by Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten for weeks and discussions have spread rapidly on social media, all before the old man has even packed his bags to start his journey to the Netherlands.

Groningen University newspaper U-Krant asks: does the Sinterklaas holiday belong to the category of Golliwogs or does it rather resemble Hadji Firoez? Golliwog was a black character that showed up in British children’s books in the late 19th century. The rag doll has a black skin, bright red lips and frizzy hair, just like Zwarte Piet. It became a popular toy, but:

“As Britain became more diverse, the British public became more aware of the cultural establishment of racial stereotypes in children through these depictions. Regardless of the golliwog’s place in British culture as a once beloved soft toy for children, the popularity and visibility of the golliwog near-evaporated in Britain as political attitudes changed in the late 1960s.”

Hadji Firoez, on the other hand, is a Persian tradition that revolves around a black-faced character that did maintain its popularity. Hadji Firoez shows remarkable resemblances to Zwarte Piet too: both only show up during the holiday and are black-painted, both wear red lip-stick and a brightly colored suit. Their main audience consists of children and they have a large repertoire of songs. Just like Zwarte Piet, there are many different theories when it comes to the origins of the Hadji Firoez tradition, some of which point to slavery. Yet Hadji Firoez has been placed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, whereas a chairwoman of a UN Human Rights Commission panel recently condemned Zwarte Piet and the future of the feast seems to be at stake.

Supporters of Zwarte Piet have reacted strongly because the celebration of Sinterklaas gives the Dutch society a feeling of union. Yet they should acknowledge that some people experience the Sinterklaas feast as racist, writes the U-krant:

“Many of the Dutch argue that Zwarte Piet is for children; that, as children do not understand racial stereotyping or the histories of African subjugation at the hands of White Europeans, Zwarte Piet is, and should be received as, a harmless helper to Sinterklaas. Yet, this fails to comprehend that the children’s ignorance of their own racial stereotyping would continue, and often grow into adulthood.”

However, the festivities are important for many Dutch and cannot simply be taken away, the grounds for the “Pietition” that was already signed by over 2 million people. One proposed solution is to switch from Zwarte Piet to all kinds of colored Petes. Changing a tradition is not impossible. Zwarte Piet only came into existence in 1850; before that time Sinterklaas used to show up unaccompanied. After 1850 he would initially only bring one Piet along – and that Piet carried a wide variety of names, from Trappadoeli to Sjaak. It was only after World War II that Sinterklaas started to be surrounded by a large number of helpers. And whereas Zwarte Piet used to serve as a bogeyman to whip in line the children, he is nowadays considered a friendly, cheerful and generous character that children admire.

“Tradition is a guide, not a governor”, writes the Groningen U-Krant therefore, tradition can change, but in order to be successful and sustainable, change should occur gradually. Any requires for direct changes will meet resistance.

This thought was perfectly summed up by Universe of Tilburg University: ‘What we need is a Sinterklaas evolution, not a revolution.

Edited and Translated by Nele Goutier and Lotte Kamphuis


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