In recent years, the Dutch celebration of the holiday known as Sinterklaas has been in a negative spotlight. It’s believed that the make up used for Sinterklaas’ servant, Zwarte Piet, shows uncanny resemblance to blackface. But is this Dutch children’s holiday racist in it’s essence? We’ll let you decide in the poll at the end of this article.
The Dutch celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’ as well as Christmas. Their holiday ‘Sinterklaas’ is celebrated on December 5th, and is similar to Christmas. The name ‘Sinterklaas’ derives from Saint Nicholas—just like the name: Santa Clause. But rather than being a jolly fat man living on the North Pole with his elves and reindeer, Sinterklaas is a tall and often skinny man traveling by steamboat and horse, living in Spain with his black helpers. Because of the latter, this Dutch holiday has been in an increasingly negative spotlight for at least a decade. The reason for this is that white folks are painted black to portray the role of ‘Zwarte Piet’, or Black Pete, which is conceived by many who weren’t brought up with this tradition, as being similar to blackface—something actual racists use to paint themselves black and ridicule black people. But both the opposition and supporters of Black Pete fail to understand one another. Yes, racism is terrible, and should be removed from the face of the earth. But are supporters of Black Pete intentionally hurting those who’ve endured racism? Or are they upholding a tradition they grew up with? A tradition that has brought them their fondest childhood memories?
In recent years, the arrival of Sinterklaas and his many Zwarte Pieten has been accompanied by perhaps just as many police officers; ensuring the safety of both supporters and opposers of this children’s holiday. The once dancing, skipping, and happy Zwarte Pieten, are gradually replaced with ‘Roetveeg Pieten’, or Soot-Wipe Petes. A compromise made by both sides, to keep this Dutch tradition afloat. It is now claimed that ‘Zwarte Piet’ was only black because he climbed through chimneys every December 5th. If that’s so, why do they arrive from Spain into the Netherlands black? Has Sinterklaas not made them aware of the invention of a shower? In any case, compromising on Black Pete is being ignorant to the actual history of this holiday.
On the 5th of December, the Dutch don’t celebrate their right to be racist, they celebrate a man who was far from racist. As the story goes, Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey, who freed a child from slavery and delivered him back to his parents. While there’s no mention of the boy’s skin color, it was said that this boy was named Pieter, a name we first hear in 1833 in relation to St. Nicholas celebrations, but became official in 1859—at this time it was clear that Pete was indeed black.
While it is very understandable that some associate Black Pete with blackface—a racist, and terrible form of ridicule—it’s also understandable that others feel Saint Nicholas is a beautiful example of anti-racism, and fail to understand how anyone can see it any differently. Do you think Sinterklaas is a racist holiday? Please let us know by voting in this poll.