By Evie Portier
Winter has crept back into our collective consciousness, and with it comes the anticipation of various events: finals, christmas, and for the few Dutch students on campus, Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas begins with the ‘intocht’ — which is when Sinterklaas, a kindly Santa Claus-like figure, arrives on his boat filled with presents. Until the 5th of December, Sinterklaas’ helpers, the Pieten, sneak down through the chimneys of well behaved young girls and boys, leaving small gifts and sweets in their shoes. On the 5th of December, Sinterklaas visits all of the children in the Netherlands, leaving them more substantial (christmas morning type) gifts before returning to Spain on his steamboat. While Sinterklaas is oft seen as a source of joy, it has also become one of the most hotly debated celebrations of our time and this is not without merit. The Pieten, or ‘Black Petes’ as they are dubbed by anglophone media in the midst of a crisis of identity. To understand this crisis we must first refer to the origins of the celebration of Sinterklaas.
The persona of Sinterklaas, much like Santa Clause, derives from the holy figure of Saint Nicholas, who lived during the third century. He was raised as a devout christian and spent much of his life assisting orphans, and the less fortunate. Many legends have arisen based on his kind treatment of others, but the story upon which the persona of Sinterklaas was built tells of a poor father with three young daughters. The father could not afford to pay the various dowries required for his daughters to be married, and as such they were fated to be sold into slavery. As the story goes, one night, Saint Nicholas threw three small bags of gold into the home of the family, and one of the bags of gold landed in the shoe of one of the daughters. With regard to the origin of Zwarte Piet, Saint Nicholas has also been accredited with freeing slaves, and being opposed to the practice of slavery. As such, many of my Dutch peers have been quick to claim that those outside of the Dutch cultural paradigm are too quick to daemonize its nature, and that instead, the Pieten who are represented in the modern celebration of Sinterklaas are assisting him by choice.
However, regardless of whether or not Saint Nicholas himself was accompanied by freed slaves in his own lifetime, the representation of Zwarte Piet as a white individual with entirely black makeup, reddened lips and golden piercings is problematic. In contemporary pop culture, but especially in early cartoons, films, and theatre, black characters have often been used as the brunt of violent jokes, and have been greatly reduced to two-dimensional, unintellectual beings. In observing certain representations of Zwarte Piet, this trend has persisted.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration, in homes all across the Netherlands and some parts of Belgium, young children tune in to watch the Sinterklaasjournaal, which is a mock news series covering the various antics of the Pieten and Sinterklaas as they prepare to deliver their gifts. Every year, especially during the final nights leading up to Sinterklaasavond or ‘the night of Sinterklaas’, something catastrophic occurs, and the children are left in suspense as to whether or not Sinterklaasavond will still happen. It is never the wise (and white) Sinterklaas who is responsible for these mishaps. Instead, the comical Pieten are to blame.
A comparison can — and should — be drawn here between these two dimensional caricatures and the Looney Tunes’s Censored Eleven, which were a group of cartoons which played into racial stereotypes that were removed from circulation after public outcry. It seems that the Dutch opinion on this matter is continuing to develop. It has recently been reported by NU.nl that the official ‘intocht’ (when Sinterklaas arrives with his gifts) this year, will feature only Veegpieten. In the story of Sinterklaas, Veegpieten (translated roughly to mean Pieten with soot on their faces), make sense. Sinterklaas and his Pieten, much like Santa Claus, sneak down the chimney to place the gifts inside the shoes of young children. As such, it makes sense that the individual delivering the gifts to the children would be covered in soot.
Others have suggested replacing Zwarte Pieten with Regenboogpieten (roughly translated to mean Rainbow Pieten), although many in the Netherlands find this to be a misappropriation of the tradition. There is no story or sense associated with why Pieten should be any colour. Veegpieten appear to be the least controversial solution to the issue of Zwarte Pieten. Even the Sinterklaasjournaal has recently attempted to develop plots which do not perpetuate racial stereotypes, as they eliminate the element of blackface and the problematic characterization of Sinterklaas’s helpers as two-dimensional nitwits. Between the generation of my parents and my own, the Dutch understanding of the identity of the Zwarte Piet has already shifted. Indeed, when I was growing up, Veegpieten were the most common type of Piet I would encounter. With the continued efforts of the Dutch to recognize this component of our history, hopefully my children will be able to enjoy the celebration of Sinterklaas without whispered debates taking place in the background. This year, it has been announced that the intocht of Sinterklaas will feature only Veegpieten, and this is an important step forward.
Nevertheless, confronting a problematic component of one’s own culture is difficult. In observing one’s own culture with a critical lense, I encourage any individual reading this article to look into a short story written by Shirley Jackson that was published in the New Yorker in 1948 entitled “The Lottery”. “The Lottery” tells the tale of a town with a murderous tradition, the origin of which little can remember, and the function of which little can argue for. However, the tradition prevails. “The Lottery” provides individuals with a lense through which to look at components of their culture which may be problematic. Indeed, when Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery” in 1948, it was the first Op-ed written by a woman to be published in the New Yorker. Some people at the time insisted that it was improper for women to be writing for a newspaper. Seventy years later, most do not think twice about reading an article written by a woman. Culture can change, if the populus is willing.
Evie M. Portier is a first year student enrolled in the Euro-American program. When she is not studying or with her friends you can most likely find her in the Carrefour looking for (and dropping) cheap vegetables.