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The People vs. Sinterklaas

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.

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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