Holland’s annual blackface Christmas tradition comes to its usual awkward close today
It’s December 5th—the day Dutch children get to open their presents from Sinterklaas, the original Santa from which the American Santa Claus derived. But in Holland, they do Christmas a little differently.
First, he isn’t from the North Pole. He lives in Spain, where every year he sails in a boat (not a flying sled) from Spain to Holland, where he mounts a white horse and roams the country until December 5th when, if children have been good, he fills their shoes with candy. Like in America, there is naughty list for kids. But unlike what happens in America, if Dutch children have been bad Sinterklaas kicks them and beats them with a switch, and stuffs them into a sack and brings them back to Spain. At least according to lore.
If bringing a country’s bad children back to Spain sounds like a lot of work, it is—which is why Sinterklaas has helpers. But unlike the American Santa’s elves, Dutch Santa’s helpers are a crew of “six to eight black men.” The black men are all named Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet, in Dutch.
If it sounds a lot like Dutch Santa has a bunch of slaves, you’re not crazy—Zwarte Piet was traditionally recognized as a former until the mid-’50s when cultural awkwardness around Santa being a slave-owner changed the official record to being Santa’s “friends.”
The genesis of the Zwarte Piet fable was immortalized in David Sedaris’s epic “Six to Eight Black Men” story which is embedded below and which, if you haven’t heard it yet, is guaranteed to be the best fifteen minutes of your day.
But unfortunately Zwarte Piet doesn’t stop at myth—he’s all too real.
The Dutch take great pride in celebrating Sinterklaas’s annual journey from Spain to The Netherlands with his Black Petes. And no wonder—inventing Santa Claus is no small cultural claim. But in recent years globalization and social media have brought an uncomfortable amount of attention to this national tradition of the Dutch dressing up in blackface and donning kinky wigs and gold earrings to achieve Zwarte Piet’s classic “moorish” look.
Yes, you read that right: A pillar of Dutch Christmas tradition is dressing up in blackface and having a good laugh at the “six to eight” (who can tell exactly—they all look alike, amirite?) former slaves known as Black Pete (why bother with individual names—we are talking about slaves here, amirite?).
The Black Pete issue has always been a little uncomfortable. But the controversy absolutely exploded over the last two years. Poet Quinsy Gario who grew up in St. Maarten, which is still part of the Dutch Kingdom after having been colonized initially in 1631, started wearing a t-shirt reading “Black Pete is racism.” A fairly mild assessment, all things considered. He wore it to a Christmas parade in 2011 and was pepper-sprayed and arrested.
This year, after the Black Pete tradition was recommended for inclusion on the UN’s UNESECO list as an “intangible cultural heritage,” vitriolic protests sparked on both sides. Gario, who has continued to be outspoken about Black Pete, received death threats. The New Yorker quotes a Dutch ethnologist as calling it “an existential revolt not seen in Dutch society since the murder of Pim Fortuyn.”
Some Black Pete defenders insist that Pete has nothing to do with slavery or race, but that the helpers are black from chimney soot, which they descend to give children their candy (or beat and kidnap them, as tradition holds). Given the Dutch penchant for adding kinky wigs and big, red lips to their annual blackface costumes, the detractors find this argument unconvincing.
With passions running high on both sides, it doesn’t seem like an issue that’s going to be resolved quickly or easily. Sinterklaas has been wandering the Dutch countryside since November 17 with his “six to eight black men” and while his stint comes to a close today he’ll almost definitely be back next year.
But if Dutch children have to endure a helping of controversy along with their Christmas celebration, perhaps they should just be happy to wake up at home on December 6, instead of stuffed in a sack on the way back to Spain.
Do yourself a favor and listen to David Sedaris talk about Black Pete below.