Before coming to Holland I recall in my youth my mother used to play St. Nick for us on or around the 6th of December. We would put our shoes out somewhere – we didn’t have a fireplace. In the morning ‘St. Nick’ had deposited some candy into them. We didn't get much into the tradition or storytelling aspect – we were more of a Christmas and Santa Claus family – like the rest of the US.
During my recent visit to Holland I witnessed the phenomenon of St. Nicholas as practiced by the Dutch. The tradition of St. Nicholas started here, more or less. I know it has roots in other countries as well but Holland really takes the cake for the way in which its delivers a certain pomp and spectacle along with it.
My first day in the small town of Doetinchem I was wandering around the town’s commercial center, it’s really just a square with a church and a bunch of stores surrounding it. I came across these things at first:
Later with a bit more walking I came across a full fledged boy – he was no older than a teenage years maybe 16 or 17. He was dressed completely in blackface – this character they call Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete in English. I asked him if I could take his photo – he complied. I did not question him further. I was however extremely curious about what the Dutch currently think about this issue. Another part to the legend is that this Black Pete is St. Nick’s helper who has gone down the chimney to deliver presents. How exactly would his skin be totally and completely covered with soot and completely unrecognizable. How would his hair turn curly and also his lips bright red. What is the coincidentally implication of a black helper of santa vs. a white helper.
From what I gathered from talking to people about it was that a majority of Dutch who had been born and raised there don’t really seem to mind so much about the over racism being practiced. In fact they don’t see it as being racist at all. They say that this is their tradition. And that they have been practicing it for years and should be allowed to do so. Others I spoke with, though a slight minority do understand the implications of what is happening. They see the fact that a white European is putting on black paint, basically on all parts of the showing skin, as well as a curly black wig, and bright red lipstick. They do realize there is something more to this practice than fun and games with children and candy.
I had read around that time that there were people speaking out about this practice. During the night that I spent in Amsterdam we came across a protest of black pete by African migrants and refugees. Again I did not get too far into the march, or do any reportage. The vibe I got was pretty real though. People are right to raise concerns. I’m not sure of their overall motive or argument but at least an argument is coming forth.
A good argument would be what if the boy was white. Some renditions, though scarce show the character as the same figure more or less but with no makeup just some smudges of soot on the face. This to me is way more accurate a depiction of what someone would look like had they gone down a chimney.
If you read the history of Holland and Belgium and understand their relationship to Africa you know that this entire practice is extremely problematic and needs a serious look and discussion around it. No matter if slavery was abolished 100 years ago, that history of violence and oppression remains, and it hurts even worse when you put a comic and friendly spin on it in the way that Zwarte Piet has.