Sinterklaas: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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On December 5th, the Netherlands celebrates a holiday called Sinterklaas. I think it’s a horrible holiday. Why? Let me explain, Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas looks a lot like Santa Clause. The jovial men have the same appearance but they’re not quite the same. Folktales say that Sinterklaas lives in Spain, but his origins are from Turkey.

Between 250-270 BC, Sinterklaas was a former priest who became a bishop and helped his village, which was starving from hunger, by performing miracles. Like Santa Clause, he has grey hair and beard, wears glasses a pointy hat and a dress. I think Sinterklaas’ clothing comes from the Catholic religion and two weeks before December 5th, he comes with his boat from Spain along with his help. His help are called the Zwarte Piet, translated that means ‘Black Pete.’ Let me give you a description of what his help look like. The depiction is always a very black (or painted black face), red big lips (or lipstick), black short curly hair (a fucked up afro wig), big golden earrings and an unusual outfit. Sometimes they speak with a kind accent similar to a Caribbean accent. Do you get the clue?

When Sinterklaas’ help see children, they throw candy with pepernoten (traditional little Sinderklaas cookies) that they carry in their bag. Sinterklaas moves himself with a white horse called Schimmel and the Zwarte Pieten have to walk and do all of his work. They have to do what he says and are portrayed as a bit afraid of him. I don’t know what harmful things an old man like that can do, but hey…

As the story goes, children have to put their shoe in front of the chimney, heater or radiator with a carrot inside for Schimmel, Sinterklaas’ horse. At night Sinterklaas with his Zwarte Pieten go to children’s houses and put presents in their shoes. The Zwarte Pieten go through the chimney and deliver the gifts, which is the reason why they’re black- because of the chimney’s coal. This is what I’ve been told.

If you’re a naughty kid and haven’t behaved properly the whole year, Sinderklaas will put you into his bag and take you back with him to Spain. Naughty children can also expect some spanking with a roe, which are a bunch of branches strung together like the broom of a witch, before Sinterklaas even takes them to Spain. Children in the Netherlands grow up with this holiday figure, like I did. They love the gifts that they get from Sinterklaas, though obviously the presents are actually from their parents.

An important part of this holiday is pakjes avond (present evening), which is just like Christmas Eve. Weeks before pakjes avond starts, you’ve got to pull lootjes, which means pulling a name out of a bag or box filled with names of people who’ll join Sinterklaas. For that choosen person, you have to buy one of the presents that’s on their their wish list and make a surprise. A surprise is a handmade object in which your gift is hidden. It’s fun.

Pakjes Avond and Sinterklaas I can bare, but what’s up with the Zwarte Pieten? It really reminds me of slavery, with Sinterklaas as the master and his help as the slaves. Why aren’t the Zwarte Pieten in all kinds of colors or white? Or why not put black streak/stains/spots on them, which seem more likely if they come out of the chimney, right?

I did see a small change last year- some Zwarte Pieten had brown faces instead of black (which is even worse!) and I did see some with the black streak/stains/spots, but it needs to change more! The Zwarte Pieten looking like black people and/or slaves has to go. Children don’t see anything bad in it, I hope, but one time a child pointed at me and said to her dad; ‘Look dad, it’s Zwarte Piet!’ Children could grow up with the idea that black people are like slaves and have to do what a white man, like Sinterklaas, says. Still, I’m hoping that when the children grow up, their parents will tell them the truth about Sinterklaas being a myth so maybe that idea will fade away.

What do you think?

-Stefania

Ever thought about going to Amsterdam for, er, biking adorably? If so, check in with Stefania as she chronicles her life in Amsterdam. Welkom!

Last 5 posts by Parlour

  • Dom

    I’m just now reading the past posts so sorry Im late. I’ve heard about this holiday before, but never in depth. Thanks for the first hand perspective.

    Sadly, crap like this explains the degradation I see whenever I visit Aruba. SMH @ Arubans believeing the Dutch are their “family.”

  • Lisa B.

    My son has to do a project for school on a celebration.  We thought because my father (his grandfather) is dutch, he could do it on Sinterklaas day.  However, my father immigrated to Canada (where we live) when he was very young and does not remember much of the celebration the way his many older siblings did.  This article has be wonderfully informative!  Thank you so much!

    Being the minority in both race and culture, it will be interesting the way we decide to portray Zwarte Peit for this project.  My son is one of 3 caucasion children in his class of 20, most that will being doing their projects on Diwali or Eid.  Hopefully the class will just find it different from all the rest and therefore very interesting!

    Merry Christmas!

  • Erik van garderen

    Santa Claus is an ofspring from Sinterklaas, some body had to bring religion into it and more mystery.
    Kids can relate to Sinterklaas, but are scared most of the time of Santa.What has Santa ever done, at least Sinterklaas helped people in his village, Lets face it in “Futurama” Santa goes around killing

  • maarten

    i happen to be dutch and grew up in Holland most of my life. it’s important for people to understand there was no slavery within holland we never had discrimination within our country. swarte piet is loved by all children. growing up i looked up to swarte piet and couldn’t wait for them to visit my school. how would this make any child grow up to become racist? it’s just now that this conversation about racism is coming up as americans see every little thing as racist and push their culture onto others. maybe they should worry about their own issues and stop interfering with others.