The People vs. Sinterklaas

29 November 2011, by

On November 12th, I found myself standing along a canal with thousands of families all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Sinterklaas.

Every year, a different city in the Netherlands hosts this annual event, which is also broadcast, nationwide, to millions. In 2011, it was Dordrecht’s turn and the city was decked to the nines in decorations and hoopla.

I bought a cup of coffee from an American-expat dressed up like Sinterklaas, watched a group of Zwarte Pieten rappel down the side of a church tower and had gingerbread kruidnoten tossed at my head during a parade.

If you are new to the Netherlands, you may not be familiar with Sinterklaas. The annual holiday falls on December 5th and, more or less, it is celebrated along the lines of the festivities surrounding Santa Claus in North America.

Instead of elves and reindeer, however, Sinterklaas, the magical, mystical gent at the centre of the holiday, is accompanied by his trusty horse Amerigo and a group of people* collectively known as Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). American satirist David Sedaris wrote about the holiday a while back and his essay, titled "6 to 8 Black Men" can by heard over here.

For most who had travelled to Dordrecht to greet Sinterklaas, the trip was a good, old fashioned tradition, as wholesome, innocent and beloved as a Christmas tree. They cheered and sang carols as Sinterklaas pulled into port on a steamship filled with Pieten, all of them Dutch Caucasians in black makeup.

However, the holiday has come under fire in recent years for obvious reasons: many immigrants, expats and locals alike find the Zwarte Pieten archaic, racist and downright appalling.

But here is where things get even more complicated. As easy as it might be to stare, agape, at the Dutch as they celebrate Sinterklaas and start rambling about history, slavery, cultural insensitivity, the increasing levels of xenophobia in the Netherlands, anti-immigrant tensions, white privilege and the very real economic gap between white and black citizens of the Netherlands, it is easy to become ambivalent about the holiday.

Sinterklaas is not, pardon the expression, so easily defined in easy, black and white terms. Among the families that turned out for Sinterklaas’ arrival in Dodrecht, there were many Asians, while many parents of African descent had dressed their kids up in Zwarte Pieten outfits and, in some cases, had even allowed them to don black make-up. 

How can a holiday like this be completely written off as "racist" if so many different people happily celebrate it?

The Dutch are not entirely unaware of the troublesome subtext and undertones of Sinterklaas. In recent years, the organisers of similar events have rolled-out Pieten covered in pastel makeup instead.

Photo by Flickr user Peter Werkman

Unfortunately, the orange and blue Pieten have proven incredibly unpopular and are rarely, if ever, seen these days.

There seems to be a clear line between locals and expats. If you are a local, you likely consider Sinterklaas as a lot of innocent fun and those that label the holiday as "racist" are over-reactive ninnies drunk on political correctness. If you are an expat, you are probably indifferent to the holiday or even disgusted by it.

2011 is quickly becoming one of the most controversial Sinterklaas seasons of all time. During the Dordrecht festivities, an anti-Sinterklaas protester was beaten by police and the incident can be viewed on YouTube (video). A Dutch blog called Zwarte Piet is Racisme also debuted last summer and offers a rundown on protests and information on where to buy anti-Pieten t-shirts. An article critical of the holiday written by Flavia Dzodan, a contributor at Tiger Beatdown, has drawn plenty of harsh and offensive comments by Sinterklaas’ defenders.

One flip-response you will hear from Sinterklaas’ fans is that the Piets are not actually black. They are merely covered in soot from climbing up and down chimneys. That said, people who hang around in chimneys don’t typically crawl out in spotless clothing looking like cartoonish caricatures of Dave Chappelle doing a stand-up routine in King Arthur’s Court.

So is it time for the traditions surrounding the Zwarte Pieten to end in the Netherlands? Should the holiday be revamped? Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comment forum below.

* Piet's actual race and place of origin is still up for debate. The character has roots in a 19th century legend that Sint travelled with an enslaved demon. Other's claim that he and his colleagues are from Suriname or are of Moorish descent.


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Comments arranged by date (Total 36 comments)  
December 01 2011, 02:28PM

There's a good debate about this article over on I Am Expat's Facebook wall but nothing over here? That's just silly. I think I'll stir things up by saying that Zwarte Piet is totally racist and that it's time for this stuff to end. White people in black make-up, in any context, just ain't cool in the year 2011. Get with the times, Dutchies!

December 01 2011, 05:26PM

As an international I believe in respecting another culture's customs. That said, as an American, our culture teaches us (well, most of us) that the dark black-face is one of the most racist and offensive symbols in our country's history. I cannot look at the Zwarten Pieten without cringing EVERY SINGLE TIME.I understand that the Dutch might say that is our problem, but can you imagine if others selected a certain Nazi symbol and decided to weave it into a holiday tradition? THAT is the level of revulsion felt by many. I happen to be white, yet many internationals I know from various countries and ethnic origins find the Zwarten Pieten equally as offensive.If they were coming down a chimney they would have patches of grey/black ashes, not blackface. I don't run around spouting my opinion to my Dutch friends and neighbors, but if they ask I do explain why it is so hard to see that. I hope that over time minor adjustments will be incorporated so that the Dutch keep their lovely holiday traditions without the need for blackface.

December 02 2011, 11:09AM

So we are ready to reject the "explanation" of the Zwarte Pieten being black due to the chimneys due to the clothes still being clean and tidy...? In the same context should we also reject that Santa Claus is coming from the chimney since he can keep his beards, hair and clothes clean?

I am not supporting any side but in my perspective it seems irrational to try to explain in a logic context many of the traditional customs in any country of the world.

I like the neutrality of the article, well done Iamexpat!:-)

December 02 2011, 08:11PM

I find this article rather confusing. If anyone knows the origins of Sinterklaas won't even be having this discussion. formally Sint Nicolaas or Sint Nikolaas; Saint Nicolas. is this tradition that St. Nicholas comes from Spain. His helper is black because at the time Spain was part of the Moor empire. It is also know that the Dutch were the first people to celebrated Sinterklaas is the States. The Dutch brought the tradition when they settled in the New York State. At the time known as Little Amsterdam. After a time the German tradition was adopted and was then celebrate on Dec 25. The American tradition could also be criticized as Santa employs and exploits little people.....I'm a Canadian and love both traditions. I just wish people would look into the facts before criticizes other peoples traditions..

December 02 2011, 08:13PM

It really has nothing to do with Slavery......

December 04 2011, 09:43AM

Im not sure what I think of the whole thing, as an American I always twinge at the use of the word "negger" even in its most innocent of sentences "hij was echt een mooi negertje" and the whole Zwarte Piet thing still freaks me out- This week I saw someone I knew for the first time actually dressed up and "geschminkt" like Piet.. It was slightly disturbing. But I feel the same way about the bull fights in Spain. Its a part of thier rich cultural heritage and who am I to judge and say it is wrong ( and I know there is a difference between causing physical harm to an animal and painting yourself black and giving cookies to children but the premise remains the same- culture and tradition ( and no I dont condone cruelty to animals) ( and its even sadder that I have to clarify all this before posting so as not to "offend" some unsuspecting innocent) I guess for me what it all comes down to is live and let live, and do what thou wilt but harm none. So since Ive come to this country to live- I can have my opinions and feel uncomfortable at seeing friends running around geschminkt, but its not my place to try and change, history, tradition and culture.

December 04 2011, 10:03AM

I love this holiday. It is the only holiday in Europe that I know of that is racially inclusive. You may cringe, but Dutch kids want to BE Piet... in how many countries do you know do the majority of white children, however briefly, entertain this idea? Further, many holidays worldwide may have dubious beginnings, and then morphed into something better. Take American Thanksgiving, for instance: should Americans not celebrate it, since it was first a celebration of the killing of Native Americans (and no, we were never told this growing up)? It has become the most important holiday in the US calendar, and is now a celebration of home and thankfulness. The same with 5 December, here. Piet was originally a Moroccan slave, now a Moroccan prince. Much better. Piets are much more interesting characters than Santa's elves (which chidren to not aspire to be).

I only wish Santa hadn't arrived here to steal the holiday's thunder.

December 04 2011, 10:24AM

"It has become the most important holiday in the US calendar."

Not at all, actually. Speaking as an American, I'd put Christmas at the top of the list. Despite its religious connotations, it completely dominates American culture for over a month between Thanksgiving and New Years. I'd stick Fourth of July at # 2, followed by New Years and Halloween. All things considered, Thanksgiving is in the # 5 slot.

Furthermore, most Americans are aware of the cringe-inducing origins of Thanksgiving and shy away from them, as opposed to the Dutch, who continue to embrace the ugly side of Sinterklaas and get angry/defensive anytime an expat calls them on the racial overtones. In the years since I was a kid, you see a lot less pilgrim/Native American Thanksgiving decorations in November in the states. Much like this, Sint needs to evolve in a similar regard. Ditch the blackface and wigs but keep everything else.

December 04 2011, 12:26PM

I don't think this tradition is racist ...
Some of us are just too sensitive , when I first arrived here I found this tradition a bit weird but just after a year I was able to enjoy this whole thing about Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet ..Who can't love Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet when they can put big smiles on children's faces???
I always believe that when u don't like the culture and tradition of a certain country , then don't go & live there .. FAIR ENOUGH ???
Besides maybe u just don't know there are really bad tradition in other part of the world that includes body mutilations & painful rituals ... Maybe u can write about that ...

December 04 2011, 01:48PM

I understand that people want to preserve their cultural traditions and everything, but I don't understand how people can seriously defend a tradition that is so obviously racist, and also so easy to modify. Little children enjoy dressing up in ANY kind of costume, it's not them for whom the color of the face paint is important, and using "the kids love it!" as a justification for maintaining the use of blackface is disingenuous. I also think that the near fanaticism with which adults defend the tradition is at least outdated and insensitive, and at most downright xenophobic.

"If you don't like it, leave" is a pathetic excuse for a rejoinder. And by the way, I'm not referring to joie77 in particular - I think this is a VERY typical thing for Dutch people to say when foreigners criticize anything about their culture. Where's the self-reflection? Change is inevitable, rather than bemoan it, why not focus on how to make this an even better place than it already is?

December 04 2011, 05:54PM

See ? just read the comments of laschmale then you know how it started ..

December 04 2011, 02:02PM

Originally, the Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of the Saint Nicholas (280–342), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. Bari later formed part of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, because it was previously conquered in 1442 by Alfonso V of Aragon. The city thus became part of the Kingdom of Aragon and later to Spain, until the eighteenth century. Due to the fact that the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), is this tradition that St. Nicholas comes from Spain. His helper is black because at the time Spain was part of the Moor empire. St. Nicholas is well known in Spain as the patron of sailors. That's why St. Nicholas comes to the Netherlands in a steamboat. St. Nicholas fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Catholic Church made his name day a Church holiday. In the north of France, he became the patron saint of school children, then mostly in church schools. The folk feast arose during the Middle Ages. In early traditions, students elected one of them as "bishop" on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until December 28 (Innocents Day). They sometimes acted out events from the bishop's life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.[2]

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for evil. Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the evil figure. Good and bad play an important role in the feast: good is rewarded, bad and evil is punished. Hence the duplication of the one Saint in a saint and a (frolicking) devil.

The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a "topsy-turvy" overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness.
Started in the middle ages......for those of you that don't know how to use google.

December 04 2011, 02:30PM

Goes back to Wodan, and forces of judgement and winter (Sint) versus forces of life and the coming of spring (that would be Piet).

December 04 2011, 07:12PM

With all due respect, we've all used Google (and some of us have done a fair amount of indepth research well beyond what was cut/pasted here) and understand the meandering historical references. No need to be anything but civil when discussing differences of opinion.

December 08 2011, 12:12PM

I believe most of us when first saw a zwarte piet had the same thought: are they slaves? It is still the same question my friends from Brazil ask me when they see pictures of Sinterklaas events. I think it is totally awkward when you have to explain that they are black because of the chimneys, the next question is: why does the clothes are not dirty as well? We can keep this discussion for-ever and Dutch people are still gonna love Sint and dress their kids as piets. To make the things worst, most of Dutch people I know get pretty upset with comments about Sinterklaas. Last week at work, I commented that was really difficult to find Christmas decoration by the end of November (when I rather to kick off decorating my place), and my boss replied: You cannot decorate your place before Sinterklaas, that’s not what the tradition says, they shouldn’t even sell Christmas decoration before 5th December. Come on, some Brazilians says that the year starts officially after Carnival in Brazil, even though, I will never tell an expat what he/she can or not do before Carnival, is their business.

The discussion in the company where I work was even beyond. Some expats simple do not buy presents to their kids on Sinterklaas, because they celebrate Christmas, some of them are living here just for some months or a couple of years and do not want their kids getting into something not familiar like this tradition, but of course schools celebrate Sinterklaas, some kids even ask why did they never celebrate before. The kids from a colleague of mine were very upset when other kids make fun of them for not getting “into” this tradition. Well I don’t have an opinion about this kind of situation, I am happy not celebrating Sinterklaas, just annoyed by the fact I just can find Christmas decoration to buy when Sint leaves Netherlands.

December 08 2011, 01:37PM

The "soot from the chimneys" idea is a modern explanation. Originally, Piet was a slave. When that became culturally repugnant, Piet became soot-covered for some people and Moroccan princes for others and rainbow-coloured for still others. These are all attempts to fit the tradition to modern values. I say, let Piet be Black (not blackened) and a Moroccan prince.

I love the way seasonal things here have been kept roughly seasonal. In the USA, shops used to keep Christmas decorations off the shelves until after Thanksgiving. Here, it's up to 10 days later, but I think it makes the seasons more special, together with the unavailability of certain foods expect around the holidays. I don't want to see a US-style non-stop access to everything.

December 08 2011, 01:58PM

I think this makes things more difficult. I was not able to start my Christmas decoration, having just evenings (when shops are closed) and 1 day the weekends off I really have to hurry up, is just not nice when you cannot enjoy taking time to do that. Anyway I can to anything about it :(

December 09 2011, 10:21AM

The chimney explanation is just a poor attempt to shove an inconvenient racial stereotype under the carpet. The earrings, curly hair, red lips and Western Indies servant's outfit clearly suggest that whatever the original myth once was (Saint vs. devil), at some point it was adapted to fit a colonial reality. The same goes for the whole "boat from Spain" narrative, which is reminiscent of a time when the Dutch navy conquered certain parts of the world, violently stealing and accumulating enormous amounts of wealth. That wealth includes diamonds, gold, all sorts of exotic merchandise AND slaves. In that respect, Zwarte Piet is also a gift; a human commodity rather than an innocent Saint's helper. As for his role in the Sinterklaas tradition, it is supposed to be humorous in a totally racist way. He is a caricature representing the insubordinate little bugger, who creates havoc because despite of his fancy European clothing he remains 'uncivilized' in comparison to the benevolent father figure of the great white conqueror. After all, that's exactly what blackface is all about; laughing at the inability of dark skinned slaves to behave accordingly to the etiquette of western culture.

December 09 2011, 10:46AM


December 15 2011, 12:43PM

Game. Set. Match. Excellent rundown, Nicolas!

December 09 2011, 10:41AM

Perfect Nicolas!

December 09 2011, 10:54AM

Lets discuss the North American tradition of Christmas and see what we can do with that.

December 15 2011, 12:44PM

I'd love to. Fire away. Would you like to take issue with Santa's labor practices or something else entirely?

December 09 2011, 07:56PM

much easier.

December 14 2011, 03:55PM

what a discussion! I actually just shared my view on Sinterklaas on my "expat in Amsterdam" blog, together with a video. It would be cool if you could give me feedback on how I chose to present the issue to the world (my readers are mostly non-holland resident). Thanks everyone who gets in touch! :-)

December 15 2011, 12:40AM

laschmale, your historical explanation is very welcome, but there's a couple things that dismiss the whole story. You say "at that time Spain was part of the moorish empire", well by 1442 the so-called "moors" were almost gone from Spain, only resisting in Granada and eventually asked to leave a bit harshly on 1492. So the connection "Saint from the byzantine empire" & "Spain" & "moors" is quite unlikely, especially as in Spain this tradition does not exist at all (which it makes me be more convinced eventually that all this tradition is totally made up in recent times). I do not find the whole thing specially racist, but a bit dated and laughable, if any. I think it would be more natural if they let the real colored people play the roles of zwarte piets, that would be regarded as a wish to integrate other cultures and races.
I think the dutch have a general issue about their identity, being a small country, surrounded by massive cultural powers like the french, german and english, they stick to their few and sometimes bizarre traditions as kind of preserving their own cultural identity, so I can understand their reaction to any criticism or challenge from foreigners. This being said, indeed some of the things happening over here do not cease to shock me, from the food, to their taste in clothing, weird social rules, their fanatic obsession with cycling, etc let's take as it is, guys, they won't change the more you try!

December 15 2011, 01:28PM

Saint Nicholas has many stories and legends surrounding him. It is believed that he lived between 270 - 343 born on Dec. 6. Born in modern day Turkey.
At this time I do think that Spain was a much different country.
All said and done, this is a Netherlands tradition one more story surrounding the Saint.

December 16 2011, 09:57AM

Spain not being much different in the 3rd century compared to now? Are you serious man? Please take a history book, it can be an interesting read.... to start with Spain did not even exist as such by then... and what about Turkey, it was also not much different than now? haha come on......anyway is not worth going through everything now, we are talking about traditions so please let's stick to that (if we can)

December 16 2011, 01:29PM

Sorry I guess I didn't write that so clear. I was trying to get to the root of the tradition and seeing how it has changed over the last almost 2000 years. I do realized that the world has changed since then. As has the tradition.

December 16 2011, 06:13PM

Fine, but my point is, why is he supposed to come from Spain, if this saint was never there? Using this same principle, that when the tradition was "invented" the rulers of Bari did kind of inherit the origin, well, if only this tradition had originated a few centuries earlier or later, we could be saying that he is coming from Austria, France, Venice, Algiers or who knows where, as the south of Italy has had a very tumultuous history... all in all this makes no sense, in my opinion

January 09 2012, 03:48AM

I was born in and grew up in South Africa, so I guess that makes me a 'white racist whether I am or not.
If you look at the tradition of the Cape Coon Carnival where Coloured's (that's the name they give themselves and very proud of the name), parade through the streets of Cape Town playing banjos with their faces painted white, could you compare that with the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaus and Zwarte Pieten? Not really, but the context is the same. If you have brown people painting their faces white then that is not racist, but if you have white people painting their faces black that's racist, right?
Those playing the race card in response to this tradition are racist themselves for even raising the subject, trying to ban a harmless tradition that does not offend the majority of the population. Get back into your 20th Century boxes....Sinterklaus and Zwarte Pieten forever...

January 09 2012, 11:09AM

Nice try, Rob. Your specious reasoning doesn't hold a lot of water or make much sense. Sounds like that carnival in South Africa is as racist, if not more so, than Sinterklaas. "Coon"? You've got to be kidding me!

Ultimately, this debate boils down to a simple rule: if you're parading through the streets, comically, while dressed as a member of another race, regardless of whether you're black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc, what you're doing is inherently racist. There should be no exceptions or double-standards here.

As for "20th century box," I'll climb back in mine when you climb back in your 19th-century equivalent.

January 09 2012, 07:18AM

robsdixon, those like you who justify any controversial and possibly racist tradition by saying "ours is not the only racist tradition so it's fine because everybody else is doing that" miss the whole point. Nobody should be perpetuating racist traditions, period. Nobody is saying that other racist or somehow deplorable traditions around the world are good. I think that everybody should look at his own backyard, judge it for what it is and try to improve it, without not comparing it to what happens in other backyards.

January 09 2012, 11:42AM

ghostwiththemost: I'm not trying to prove anything here, just stating facts, if you don't like what I write then I invite you to look at how South Africa has moved forward from their racist past :
According to the story of Zwarte Pieter is of Moorish descent so why can't he be portrayed as the story goes? The article writes that many parents of African descent had dressed their kids up in Zwarte Pieten outfits and, in some cases, had even allowed them to don black make-up. Are they racist as well? Perhaps you too are drunk on political correctness...

January 10 2012, 01:42PM

Actually, you are trying to prove something here, Rob, otherwise you wouldn't be here, no? There's no question that South Africa has made major strides to eradicate the mistakes of its past over the past two decades. Regardless, there's no escaping the fact that the Coon Festival is racist. It's right there in the name. "Coon" is a racist term that dates back at least a century. Again, there's a simple rule at play here: dressing up as a cartoonish caricature of another race is bad form. The rest of the world gets this. Why not the Netherlands and Capetown?

If you go further back in the history of Zwarte Piet you'll discover that he was depicted as a demon that Sinterklaas enslaved. This version dates back to the 19th century. Then he became Moorish. A demon is, therefore, equated with a person of dark skin tone. Pretty racist, no?

As for parents of African descent who dress their kids up as Piet, in a sense, yes, their actions are racist. I suspect that they're going along with it, against their better instincts and morals, because they want their kids to fit in and enjoy the holiday. That's all there is to it.

My question for you: why are the black makeup, lipstick and wigs even necessary? Why can't everyone just dress up as Piet, sans the "Zwarte" or just smear a bit of soot on their faces and clothing? Removing the racial undertones of the character would shut up naysayers like me and remove none of the fun/magic/tradition from Sinterklaas. Easy-peasy.

January 14 2012, 02:56AM

laschmale is totally wrong! Zwarte Piet was invented during slavery!

In this age of computers, social networks, and other search engines we must do some research about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in a historical context and avoid myths about chimney, Spain, culture, folklore etc. Ugly events in history are omitted by Europeans. The English beat Napoleon at Waterloo under Wellington. That is true! But the Ashanti tribe from Ghana beat the English four times on the battlefield. You can read that on Wikipedia. Now to the point!

The story of Sinterklaas and the "stoomboot" was written by a teacher called Jan Schenkman in 1852. Slavery was abolished by the Netherlands in Dutch Guyana in 1863. So Sinterklaas and the rest of the myths were invented during slavery. The Dutch insult my intelligence by saying that Zwarte Piet is black because he crawled through a chimney. The soot must contain some mysterious chemical agent because he came out with kinky hair and satchmo (satchelmouth) lips.
Must I write more? I have a black mother and a white father and I am a cultural switcher. Zwarte Piet is racist symbol and when I walk in the summer with my traditional dashiki children say: "Zwarte Piet is very early this year." The children cannot help! For them it is a party, surprise, putting a carrot in a shoe, presents, good time! But they are subconsciously programmed not to say brainwashed that all blacks are stupid, ignorant and servile. So a stereotype is created. In Canada no Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet last year. There are discussions in Surinam and Curacao about Zwarte Piet. Many blacks like St Nicolaas and his servants. To understand the psyche of Afro-Caribbeans one must read the speech of a certain Willie Lynch:
His name is associated with the verb to lynch. The blacks were psychologically broken. My conclusion is Zwarte Piet is racist and a prolongation of the reigning xenophobia of the Dutch.
I told my children: "Sinterklaas is a poor bishop so I gave him money to buy you guys presents. If Daddy has no money you do not get any presents. Ever heard that a white man gives things away?"
I don't know if that is pedadogically correct. I know that Turkish parents in the Netherlands tell their children that Zwarte Piet does not exist. He is a fake. Sinterklaas can also be very sad!

About the Author
Brandon H.

I'm a freelance journalist currently residing in the Netherlands.



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