sinterklaas… zwarte piete… will santa send YOU Back to spain?

I came across this post on my old blog from 2005, and had to share, since it’s holiday related and since it’s not Christmas if I haven’t listened to or read David Sedaris’ “6 to 8 Black Men”. I’m not making fun of the culture, but it does take me back to my first and only visit to Amsterdam…

One of the most um unique holiday celebrations I’ve come across over the years takes place in Holland of all places. When my sister was studying in Amsterdam, my family encountered this first-hand, as the celebrations were underway and decorations featuring Zwart Piete, or “Black Peter” were everywhere. It was interesting that what is perhaps the most un-PC holiday celebration I’ve ever come across is just the norm there and considered to be no big deal. He’s everywhere – hanging from the ceiling in De Bijenkorf (“The Beehive” – the big store in Amsterdam), decorating wrapping paper, to stuffed dolls as a part of the festivities.

I found this guy’s summary of his experience in Amsterdam online. Pretty interesting, combined naturally with Mr. Sedaris!

Back in November, I was riding my bike home from work when I noticed a bunch of kids walking around looking like they were trick or treating. I was pretty confused since it was past Halloween. I ended up stopping and asking a woman who was riding her kids on her bike (of course, 1 was sitting on a seat in the back and the other was riding on the handlebars). I asked the woman what the deal was and she told me it was St. Martin’s Day. I don’t know who St. Martin was but traditionally, Dutch children make paper mache lanterns and go from door to door, singing songs and in return they are given candy. They don’t dress in costume. It was rather interesting to see though.

But not nearly as interesting to see as this – Sinterklaas and his helper, Zwarte Piete. Sinterklaas is Santa Clause with some slight differences. From what I’ve been told, Sinterklaas was a real man who lived in the 300s. He was a wealthy man who gave gifts to needy children by dropping them down chimneys. When he died, he was made a saint and his birthday began to be celebrated as a holiday that involved gift giving. Somehow Hallmark figured out how to get this image to coincide with Jesus’ b-day but that’s a whole other story…

Anyways, Sinterklaas day is December 5. In mid-Novemeber, Sinterklaas arrives in Holland by boat from Spain (why by boat and why from Spain, I have no clue) on a white horse. He then spends the next 2 weeks riding his horse from rooftop to rooftop, listening down the chimney for good boys and girls who will get gifts. The bad children will be kidnapped and taken back to Spain to be slaves. Is this demented enough yet? Not even close.

Because now I get to tell you about Zwarte Piete, Sinterklaas’ helpers. Zwarte Piete are white people who dress in very colorful and baggy clothes. They almost look like jesters. They wear curly black hair, gold earrings, and have big red lips. The most disturbing characteristic? They are white people who wear blackface. Can you believe this? It is fully acceptable and even encouraged for white people to paint their entire faces black and then call themselves Zwarte Piete – Black Pete. What is wrong with these people? And when you ask them about this and whether it might be a bit inappropriate and dare say, racist, they respond by saying that everyone loves Zwarte Piete.

I mean, what was it, the 1930s when Al Jolsen was blackface in “The Jazz Singer”. This is something so taboo now, it’s amazing to think that there is a place that allows it without a shred of embarrassment. Some of the Dutch will say that Zwarte Piete are white people who get their faces dirty by climbing up and down chimneys. But I remember the Chim-Chimney Chim-Chimney Chim-Chim-Charoo scene with Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins” – he was a chimneysweeper who had a dirty face. He also had dirty clothes, unlike the perfectly clean and colorful clothes of Zwarte Piete. How did Zwarte Piete’s face get so dirty but nothing else?

It is truly amazing. I would expect that not only would some Dutchie tell me that this is not racist, but then they will tell me that Donovan McNabb is not that good a quarterback and that he is over hyped by the media. Cumon! Zwarte Piete is all over the place too, included in advertisements, dolls, and chocolate, everywhere. It’s crazy…

Chris happened to have been in town when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete arrived in Holland. He was walking down the street where the parade was going to occur. He told me that the parade was running late and the young kids who were waiting anxiously for the parade and ultimately, for the treats that Zwarte Piete would be handing out, to begin. Just then, they all started cheering for Zwarte Piete, pointing and screaming. When Chris turned around, he saw a black man who was working as a janitor, cleaning up garbage off the street. These kids saw a black man and thought it was Zwarte Piete. Now, tell me this isn’t racist and wrong. Or shall we just say, very Dutch!

Happy Holidays, wherever your travels may take you and in whatever form your celebrations may take 🙂

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