Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive in the Netherlands with a lot of baggage

Sinterklaas' arrival in Utrecht

Sinterklaas’ arrival in Utrecht

Each holiday season abroad, I stumble across something new. In Zhuhai it was pole dancing at a company Christmas party, in Cambridge it was a family Panto show filled with innuendo, and in Hong Kong it was consumerism gone mad.

The Netherlands has topped them all, however, with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).

In the alternative reality of the Netherlands, St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is a friendly old bishop who spends most of the year living in Spain. Once a year he travels to the Netherlands by steam ship to celebrate his birthday and to fill Dutch children’s shoes with sweets and small gifts.

He is accompanied by Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten), a troupe of much-beloved helpers in black-face. (Yes, the kind of black-face that would ensure that you would be spit upon and beaten up just about anywhere else in the world.)

A boatful of Black Petes arrive in Utrecht.

Fact 1: St. Nicolas lives in Spain rather than the North Pole.

Fact 2: St. Nicolas has black helpers (former slaves, but now just good friends) rather than pointy-eared elves.

Fact 3: St. Nicolas has nothing to do with Christmas.

Fact 4: Santa Claus is a Coca-Cola-fueled American fantasy.

I know this is all true because I saw it on TV. Specifically on channel 3 of the Dutch National Public Broadcasting system (NPO 3) via the Sinterklaas Journal.

Screen shot from the web-version of the Sinterklaas Journaal

Screen shot from the web-version of the Sinterklaas Journaal

Every evening since November 11th I have watched the 6:00 pm Sinterklaas Journaal, which is a news program broadcast in order to enable children of the Netherlands to keep tabs on Sinterklaas during this festive season (and to sell a lot of pre-show ad space). I faithfully watched the program with my children every evening last week.

In summary:

Day 1: The Black Petes accidentally drill a hole in the side of their steam boat which is en route from Spain to the Netherlands.

Day 2: The Black Petes work like mad to bail out the boat. Afraid they are sinking, all but one (House Pete) abandons the ship. Sinterklaas is oblivious. House Pete later realizes that the water filling the bottom of the ship is from a bathroom faucet that had been left running.

Day 3: The missing Petes are a big problem! Who will help Sinterklaas with all the work of distributing gifts and tossing small spiced cookies (pepernoten) around? The Mayor of Gouda commissions a group of substitute Petes to be trained in an old factory. They use the factory smoke stack to practice falling down chimneys. This process also helps the substitute Petes to ‘black-up.’

Day 4: More worry over whether everything will come right in time for Sinterklaas’ scheduled arrival in the Netherlands.

Day 5: Despite all of the problems, Sinterklaas arrives in Gouda on Saturday the 15th. The missing Black Petes also arrive by lifeboat (only to later depart in a huff because the house they are to stay in is already full of the substitute Black Petes).

And Sinterklaas Journaal will go one like this for the next two weeks or so, like some extra-long episode the 1980s sit-com Three’s Company.

Within minutes of the first segment, my children were completely sold on the concept and have grafted Sinterklaas onto their holiday belief system.

I too really enjoyed our introduction to the Sinterklaas season (a nice Thanksgiving-filler for me). We stood in the rain to watch Sinterklaas and the Pieten arrive in Utrecht on Sunday, we have played the role of Sinterklaas by leaving small gifts in our children’s shoes and I plan to bake pepernoten next week.

All seemingly innocent fun, but how does one react when her American daughter lovingly creates this picture of Zwarte Piet, complete with red lips and gold hoop earrings?

Zwarte Piet pictured with Sinterklaas' horse, Amierigo.

Zwarte Piet pictured with Sinterklaas’ horse, Amierigo.

Certainly a ‘teachable moment.’ I only have to cover hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, minstrel shows and white privilege.

Happy Holidays!

33 responses to “Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive in the Netherlands with a lot of baggage

  1. I watched (by accident rather than design) the arrival into central Amsterdam on Sunday. Fortunately my daughter is much too young to start a conversation on the racism or otherwise of Zwarte Piet. Our English friends, seeing it for the first time, found it quite strange … !

  2. We have a similar Santa Claus (Saint Niklas) custom in Southern Germany, but it’s a tad more sinister… SC is accompanied by “the Krampus”, who is dressed in black and covered in soot (note: NOT “ethnically” black, and he’s not SC’s underling, but his equal), and who takes all the Bad Children away with him into the woods…

    I was terrified as a kid. SC coming round was NOT a pleasant experience when I was small, but a moment of sheer terror. Even though I always got presents, I was frozen with fear.

  3. Maybe your daughter got Zwarte Piet mixed up with P Diddy 😉 Sounds like you’ve lucked out by not moving to Bavaria though – me too 🙂 Must see what other weird shit Germans do around Christmas… 😉

  4. I am still laughing from this. I grew up with a Dutch friend so was always included in their St. Nicholas celebrations. I never had heard about the tv show though. Oh my!

    • You can watch the TV show on-line…. Interested? It’s in Dutch, but not too difficult to follow! I really didn’t expect to step into such a strange custom here in Europe. Always something new to be surprised by!

      • Isn’t there though? It’s always crazy to me how rhe countries in Europe are so close physically, but so different culturally. Amazing. I may look up this shows. 🙂

  5. I feel so much better about the fact that earlier today, when we were out at lunch, my 3yo daughter shouted at my son to “stop spanking the monkey”. There’ll always be Piete. That’s what I’ll tell myself from now on (until they do something worse).

    On the other hand, at least you know what to put in your pinterest-ready advent calendar doobywhatsit now. Each day of advent can reveal a new era of human exploitation!

    • Ha! Now that’s an idea for next week’s post: the human exploration advent calendar! Just in time for December 1st.

      (And you’re so right, if it wasn’t the zwarte piet topic, it would be something else… )

  6. Pingback: Holiday chocolates: Zwarte Piet or racist cop? | Expat Lingo·

  7. okay. I had a chat with my Dutch friend, and he says the reason ol’ Pete is black is because he’s the dude that goes up and down the chimneys delivering presents – so the black face is supposed to depict a soot-blackened face rather than some sort of racist depiction of black people.

    • Yeah, he’s at least half full of shit. Have you seen the way they cake black paint on their faces and then draw on red lips? A few of the Petes around do simply smudge on a little black dust like soot, but the rest …

  8. Pingback: A bakfiets in Hong Kong? | Expat Lingo·

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