For nearly 200 years the Netherlands have carried on the St. Nicholas tradition of Zwarte Piet, a black elf-like character that only last year was condemned by critics as a racist caricature. Traditionalists tell Defend Christmas that they are organizing counter protests and the Winter Festival of 2014 will feature more Black Petes than ever, all but guaranteeing this issue will once again be at the forefront of media discussions of Christmas.
The complaints against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, began outside of the country, which does not have a long term history of racial issues, and it has exploded into an emotional debate as Christmas traditionalists inside the country cry foul.
While the character of St. Nicholas, both in a historic sense and in contemporary practice, has some similarities to Britain’s Father Christmas or America’s Santa Claus, the tradition of St. Nicholas is decidedly different in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, as he is known, shows up in mid-November in many communities, usually riding a white horse and wearing the traditional Bishop’s robes of St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was, in fact, a Catholic bishop of world fame who lived in the 5th century. His tradition in the Netherlands is as much — still — a religious tradition as it is a seasonal celebration. He comes into town sometimes with dozens of assistants known as Black Petes. And together — Nicholas and Zwarte Piet — they determine which children are well behaved. They visit schools, hospitals, churches, stores and even private homes for weeks at a time leading up to St. Nicholas Day, traditionally observed on December 6th.
Children respond by singing Sinterklaas songs leaving out wish lists and water and hay for the horse. If St. Nicholas happens by while checking on their behavior, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt. In some families he may stop by every night, but usually just once or several times—and not if the children have been naughty that day or forgot to sing their songs. By tradition St. Nicholas hands out the goodies while Zwarte Piete doles out the bad stuff.
While there is some history of Zwarte Piet taking on darker and more sinister forms of punishment his character over time has become more one of whimsy and mischief. Ironically, it is the character of Sinterklaas that has remained more serious while Zwarte Piet has come to bring the more light-hearted element to the proceedings.
Last year the Jamaican chair of the UN Human Rights Commission condemned the practice of Black Pete. “The working group cannot understand that why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop. As a black person, I feel that if I was living in the Netherlands I would object to it,” she said.
Those comments cast an international media spotlight on the Christmas traditions in the Netherlands and led to hundreds of protesters marching on a park in The Hague in support of Dutch traditions.
This summer a court agreed that Black Pete is racist and encouraged organizers to change the tradition. In response the mayor of Amsterdam has vowed to gradually reduce the presence of Black Pete and to diminish his traditional characteristics.
While race hasn’t been at the forefront of issues in the Netherlands it has increased in focus. In fact, local media reports that complaints of race discrimination in the Netherlands have doubled in the past year, in part due to the controversy over Zwarte Piet.
Surveys also show an overwhelming sense that political correctness has taken root in the Netherlands, adversely affecting not only tradition but race relations overall.
Expect more strife this Christmas from the Netherlands.