The Ghost of Christmas Past

By Jeppe Damberg,
November 14th, 2017


Every year on December 5th and 6th, many Dutch people paint their faces black and assume the persona of Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). This comical character plays an important role in the celebration of the feast day of St Nicholas, which in the Netherlands is one of the most celebrated children’s holidays. But where does Piet come from? What is his origin? According to the custom established in the late 1800ies, St Nicholas arrives on a steamboat from Spain accompanied by a group of his black-faced servants, who distribute presents and ginger biscuits to well-behaved children while threatening to take all naughty children back to Spain to work in orange fields.
Most of us know that this Zwarte Piet is the subject of great debate each year in the Netherlands. A Facebook post to sign a petition against Zwarte Piet shared with our community by a student received received just shy of 150 comments by UWCM students. As debates on social media platforms tend to develop, accusations of increasing intensity were thrown around and it became clear that this particular topic is indeed very sensitive and polarizing. On one side, there are the people who see the transformation into a renaissance outfitted, afro-wigged, red-lipped, black-faced servant as an abhorrent anachronism which does not belong in a modern, inclusive and progressive society. On the other side, there are the traditionalists who find the accusations of Zwarte Piet as a racist custom simply unjustified and argue the preservation of the harmless Zwarte Piet.
The most popular argument of traditionalists is that Zwarte Piet merely appears black because of soot from the chimneys he climbs down to deliver presents. It is, however, fact that the character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman in which Zwarte Piet is portrayed to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Indeed, below is the illustration from Schenkman’s book “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), portraying Zwarte Piet as a Moor wearing Moorish clothes.

Illustration from Schenkman’s “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (1850)

But this Moorish servant is not the Zwarte Piet that most Dutch people relate to today. To Dutch children and families, the tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are merely to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten and special Sinterklaas sweets for those who come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores, and other places. This is perhaps why many Dutch refuse to have the discussion of whether Zwarte Piet originates from racism in the late 1800ies or not. Most Dutch do not consider themselves to be racist, and they may very well be free of any racial prejudice in their everyday, but it is difficult to argue that Zwarte Piet is not a character based on exactly that. Therefore, discussing Zwarte Piet can be felt as a personal attack on the people who grew up with Zwarte Piet as a character who simply brings candy and joy. They may be afraid that the people who discuss the blackfaced servants want to take away Sinterklaas as a phenomenon. This rejection of discussion is happening at the dinner tables as well as politically. When the annual debate came around in December 2014 Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, simply commented “Black Pete is black” in a clear attempt to simply reject the debate and let tradition be tradition. Children are innocent and may not be able to understand the symbolism that comes with dressing up as Zwarte Piet, but it is ultimately adults who pass on tradition and customs. Somewhere in between adolescents must make up their mind if it is a tradition they wish to continue.
This neglect of conversation and reflection is also what fuels another popular traditionalist argument: that simply pointing out Zwarte Piet is racist may perpetuate racism. Traditionalists understand tolerance and moderation as considered integral parts of the Dutch national identity and to accuse a Dutch person of racism, therefore, can be seen as a failure to understand Dutchness itself. In this way, to point out that Zwarte Piet is racist is simply a misunderstanding of Dutchness. To do so would allow for a debate that could reveal the racial connotations of the custom, and so it is easier to label anti-Piets as troublemakers and enemies of Dutch traditions. Indeed, according to Diederik Samson, a Dutch politician and the former leader of the Labour Party, to engage in such a debate is “an affair for people with too much time on their hands.” Oddly enough, one of the popular children’s songs go “…even if I’m black as coal I mean well…” To point out that such lyrics carry racist connotations would not surprise many.
But not all Dutch people wish to stop the conversation of what to do with old Pete. Every year suggestions on how to make Zwarte Piet contemporary pops up in mainstream media. Some have suggested painting Pete in rainbow colours, or scaling back to a simple soot-like smudge on the chin. This is indeed clear attempts to distance the contemporary Zwarte Piet from the old Moorish character, but many see such ideas as unfair impositions of change. It should be up to debate whether Zwarte Piet is not simply a relic of a gruesome past, but unfortunately it seems that, if you don’t like Zwarte Piet, the most common response is “go back to your own culture and your own traditions”. It appears that many Dutch have forgotten that people from the Caribbean or Surinamese background have been part of this country for 400 years.